The Lights Came Back On

A community college’s fast-track CNC instruction made it possible for one manufacturer to restart its idle machining area. I see several lessons in this.
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Kenneth Lisk, president of medical-industry contract manufacturer PEP Lacey in Bridgeport, Conn., tells a dramatic story about the value of one skilled employee. 

At PEP Lacey, five CNC machining centers had sat unused for five years. The part production at this facility is mostly stamping, not machining. The job for which those VMCs had been bought was lost when the customer sent the work to Mexico. The employee who oversaw that area was let go. Then, much later, PEP Lacey took on production of a coined part with various critical features that had to be CNC machined. For lack of an employee able to program and run the VMCs, the company found itself outsourcing this machining—accepting the expense of this outsourcing, as well as the transport delays and even some quality problems—all while it had plenty of machining capacity just sitting in a darkened room.

James Amorando enabled the company to turn the lights back on. Mr. Lisk had tried to hire someone to restart the machining area and bring that part’s machining in-house, but without success. An engineer hired for this role didn’t work out. Mr. Amorando, a graduate from a high school manufacturing program who was working in a lower-skill position within the plant, said that he could oversee the machining area if only he had the training.

PEP Lacey gave him the training. The company continued to pay his wages while also paying his tuition at nearby Housatonic Community College. In May last year, after completing a nine-month program at the college, Mr. Amorando returned to PEP Lacey with the knowledge needed to insource the high-value part. Inheriting the incomplete work that previously had been done to try to bring this part’s machining in-house, Mr. Amorando debugged and, in many cases, reinvented the part’s processing steps to achieve consistently acceptable production. 

Now, he oversees machine operators running this part on a daily basis. Through the savings that have come from replacing an external supplier, not to mention the value arising from the fact that the company can now bid on CNC work, PEP Lacey’s investment in Mr. Amorando—tuition and wages both—is on its way to quickly paying for itself. In fact, this investment likely has paid for itself already.

To repeat an important detail you might have missed, that investment covered only nine months. A part of this success is the institution. Housatonic Community College’s new Advanced Manufacturing Center is one of four facilities like it, at four colleges in the state, that were all opened in 2012 as a result of funding for manufacturing training provided by the state legislature and supported by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy. The aim of this facility and the other three like it is to provide a means for rapid, relevant, targeted training in manufacturing skills.

Mr. Lisk is on the board of the Advanced Manufacturing Center. He says the institution is invaluable. “There is nowhere else in the area we could have sent James for this kind of training,” he says.

Michael Gugger, a career manufacturing engineer serving as the center’s program director, oversees what is essentially a modern, well-equipped CNC machine shop that just happens to be devoted to instruction instead of production. Prospective students are tested for requisite math skills and mechanical aptitude, but they don’t need any knowledge of manufacturing. Tuition for the single school year is about $7,000. In the course of that school year, says Mr. Gugger, “We get the student to at least the point where he or she can operate CNC equipment, perform simple setups, inspect a part for accuracy and diagnose the possible reasons for any measured error.” Mr. Amorando, perhaps because of his manufacturing training in high school or perhaps because he had a specific aim in mind for his skills, acquired even more capability from the program than this.

What are the lessons? PEP Lacey’s success at restarting its CNC area was made possible in part by its access to Housatonic’s facility and program. In the context of the challenge manufacturers face in finding skilled personnel, I see several take-aways at once. In no particular order, they are:

1. Look within. Skill sets can be taught, but other attributes of a valuable employee are harder to impart. After PEP Lacey tried (A) hiring a new person with the right skills and (B) identifying a person internally who seemed like he could be taught these skills, it was approach B that paid off. Seeing how people work, over time, might be the very best way to identify fitting candidates for the plant’s more sophisticated roles.

2. Pay for training. Manufacturers can—and ought to—invest in developing the skilled staffing they need. This is truer today than ever, because even contract manufacturers today tend to be more specialized within particular markets than in the past. The right candidate for your company’s requirements might bootstrap his or her own education and arrive ready to perform right out of the local labor pool, but it is unrealistic to rely on that kind of good fortune. PEP Lacey’s paying to educate the candidate it needed was a sound and logical choice.

3. The public sector plays a role. PEP Lacey was fortunate to have an institution nearby that could deliver very nearly the training it was looking for. Manufacturers without access to such facilities frequently try to train employees within their own processes—a difficult struggle. Providing the instrument for manufacturers to provide for their own personnel development represents a potentially effective way for state or local government to support and encourage both manufacturing business and the local workforce.

4. Manufacturing is different. Manufacturing is an endeavor in which success relies upon eliminating unnecessary activity and expense. The same has to be true of manufacturing education. A person who shows promise for a skilled manufacturing position, or the organization that has this position open, might not be able to afford or justify a long delay to realize that promise. That’s not to say the two-year duration typical of community college manufacturing programs is inappropriate—it’s not. But in PEP Lacey’s example, the case for investing in Mr. Amorando’s education became much clearer when the company realized that after a wait of just nine months, it could have the employee it needed and it could see its investment begin to pay off.