One issue that we hear from technical schools and the companies that employ their graduates is that the students often aren’t exposed to the latest technology. Too many of these future machinists need additional training from the shop that hires them.
And sadly, in too many cases this additional training may have to include remedial classes such as reading, writing and math before the employee even steps onto the shop floor. Recently, though, I came across a machine tool distributor that has changed this scenario in its tech center.
Most machine tool distributors and OEMs have showrooms or tech centers as part of their facilities. These areas are kept in readiness for customer runoffs, machine demonstrations and customer training. But for much of the year, with the exception of an occasional open house, these facilities seem largely underutilized. Instead of teeming with daily activity, they often operate as well-appointed warehouses to store equipment. Perhaps that’s the nature of the business—perhaps not. Lichron, a Swedish machine tool distributor decided to tackle these two issues at the same time.
The distributorship was started in 1994 by Åke Lindberg and his wife. The company sells a range of machine tool brands including Hardinge, Hyundai-Kia, Okamoto and Kiwa.
I met Åke at a Hardinge-hosted reception while we were both attending a machine tool show in Taiwan. We started talking about the shortage of properly skilled workers, and he told me about his company’s approach to the problem.
Basically, Lichron has set up a private technical high school in his distributorship’s technical center. The school is fully accredited by the Swedish government. As he told me, the idea came to him as a way to better utilize the showroom and the machines and equipment in it. With his breadth of products, students are exposed to the newest manufacturing technology, and if a machine is sold, it gets replaced with a newer one.
The company owns two technical high schools with a third being readied. There are 200 students enrolled in the fully accredited 3-year program, graduating about 70 students per year. With the new school, that number will jump to 100 per year. According to Åke, it has become a popular school with 300 applications received for the 70 available slots.
Of Lichron’s 55 employees, 25 are teachers of subjects including language and mathematics, as well as CAD/CAM programming and machine tool technology. The school has become a business unit of the distributorship.
Revenue from the school in 2006 was $3.5 million. Machine tool sales for the same year were $23 million. The school revenue comes from a government stipend of $17,500 per student. In Sweden, high school is free, so this stipend seems most like a voucher system in the U.S.
Åke tells me that you have to think long-term and understand that we are actually training our future customers. After spending 3 years with Lichron, the school’s alumni are very likely to come back to the company in new positions as machine tool buyers, which is already happening.
Another attribute to this company is its ability to provide a unique benefit to its customers. The shortage of properly skilled workers is as true in Sweden as it is in the U.S. The technical school is a bridge across that problem. If a customer needs an operator, programmer, setup person or any other position, they are certainly going to look at Lichron’s school for personnel. However, I think few dealers can sell a machine tool and, at the same time, potentially provide a shop-ready employee specifically trained on the equipment.
Sweden is obviously different from the U.S., and maybe setting up private technical schools is impractical here. But I’m intrigued by the problems Lichron’s business model solves. As an industry, if we don’t tackle our problems, who will?