TMA’s Training 2.0

A different and newly equipped training program addresses the needs of Illinois-area manufacturers as those needs have changed in recent years. The success of the new program suggests questions for leaders in other regions of the country.
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TMA was actually founded for training. So notes Patrick Osborne, the group’s current vice president of training and education. The Illinois-based manufacturing association was established in 1925 by a small group of tool and die shop owners primarily as a means to provide training related to machining and toolmaking. The group’s role has expanded to provide many other services to member companies, but even so, those roots in training made what happened in 2009 particularly grave. In that year, the association ceased its training services.

Of course, there was a great deal that ceased in 2009. The difficulties U.S. manufacturing faced during the lowest year of the Great Recession don’t need to be recounted. Interest in TMA’s training had been in decline already, but that year the demand essentially halted. It seemed as though this part of TMA’s heritage might have entirely come to an end.

But as it turned out, this ending was just the shutdown prior to the reboot.

Training began again in 2012. This time, the training had a different focus and it took a different form. Thanks to good decisions augmented by some favorable developments for the association, the group found its way to a new model for manufacturing training that fits the way post-recession U.S. manufacturing has changed. And that model almost certainly has something to suggest to other industrial regions of the country where there is also a shortage of, and a growing need for, metalworking talent.

TMA today stands for the Technology & Manufacturing Association. Most who engage with it know it simply by the initials. A regional group rather than a national one, TMA covers Illinois and parts of neighboring states, and in particular it is a resource for the manufacturing community around Chicago. Based in Schaumburg, the group now occupies a newly opened headquarters with a training facility including a five-axis machining center, a CNC Swiss-type lathe and four other CNC machine tools. One of the favorable developments for the group’s new training program was the eminent domain seizure that led to the opening of this new site.

The association had been providing metalworking training in space donated by a member manufacturer. That space initially remained available when training ceased in 2009, but that availability was threatened when the manufacturer’s business later began to surge. The owner told TMA it would have to either resume using that space or lose it to the manufacturer’s own expansion.

The decision that came next proved to be a very good one. Rather than resuming tool and die training such as courses in die setup and safety, TMA’s leaders decided to equip the space with two CNC machines (a Haas VMC and lathe) in order to offer basic instruction in CNC machining. The program created around these machines was essentially a crash course, consisting of eight weeks on the lathe and eight weeks on the mill for 16 total weeks of instruction. The result was exactly what many local manufacturers were seeking: a way to develop promising unskilled staff members into beginning CNC machining employees, and do so quickly. The class was a success.


The new TMA facility for accelerated machining skills instruction includes six CNC machines. The Swiss-type machine (from Star) is seen to the left in the photo above, and the five-axis machine (from Mazak) is seen in the photo below. These are two types of machining capabilities member companies asked TMA to provide training in. Members also asked for the training facility to include a variety of different controls.


Progress might have stopped there. Just at that time, however, the public school board close to TMA’s previous headquarters claimed the group’s building for that organization’s expansion, and provided generous compensation for the loss. The association therefore unexpectedly had to move, but it also had the resources for a move to a better facility. And at that moment, the success of the small CNC training program was hard to miss. Why not build upon this style of training with a dedicated training shop that would be part of the association’s new home?

TMA leaders went to member companies for guidance in this. They asked the manufacturers what they were lacking when it came to training and what type of training they needed most. The responses suggested that as a whole these companies needed hands-on instruction with various types of machine-tool controls, and training in complex machines beyond the standard mill and lathe. In direct response, the new shop at the TMA’s headquarters now includes machines with Haas, FANUC and Mazatrol controls, as well Swiss-type and five-axis machining. The six-week Swiss training program is already underway, and a five-axis training program is in development.

Mr. Osborne says this is the kind of training that local community colleges typically can’t provide. Community college education remains vital, but he says part of what TMA has discovered and begun to fill is a different training gap that has become important in recent years.

It is not only TMA that has changed since 2009, he explains. In the wake of the recession, multiple factors affecting manufacturers came together. Machine shops that had held onto their senior machinists for as long as they could began to lose this talent to retirement. Meanwhile, so many shops went out of business during the recession that the ones remaining found themselves straining with work as soon as business increased. Thus, these shops needed talent in short order, they were ready to invest to develop the talent themselves, but the amount of business left them with no spare capacity or attention for performing this training internally. The need was for an off-site facility with the same modern equipment as the shops themselves had that could offer targeted training lasting weeks instead of semesters. Now that TMA is offering exactly this, Mr. Osborne says the challenge for the association’s small team has been to organize the number of classes it is now called to host in order to accommodate the number of students that member companies want to send.

Does the same need exist in other manufacturing regions of the country? That it does seems like the reasonable inference from this success. While the Chicago area is unique for having a regional association able to see this gap and step into it, it is not unique for having the lack of young, skilled manufacturing employees. How can this gap be filled elsewhere?

Your own region, if you’re not near Chicago, probably does not have an established regional trade association exactly like this one. Therefore, what could take this group’s place in serving as a resource for targeted manufacturing training? For civic leaders, business leaders and other economic stakeholders in regions where independent machining businesses are concentrated, this is a question worth asking. Could quick, modern, focused metalworking skills instruction be established in your area?

If yes, then what is the group, agency, platform or institution that could serve as the vehicle for managing and delivering this instruction? And how could this group be encouraged and supported?