Filling the advanced manufacturing skills gap

Student Crystal Muranda using one of many milling machines at Richland College. (Photo: DCCCD)

Kevin Patino, a second-year student at Richland College in Dallas County Community College District in Texas, walked by the advanced manufacturing lab on campus one day and immediately “fell in love” with the state-of-the-art, gleaming machines he saw.

Patino, who was studying mechanical engineering at the time, said he felt a “little suffocated” by the theory of mechanical engineering, and the machines in the lab felt like they “were calling my name.” He decided to investigate the program and knew it was meant for him.

“I have worked on the mills and enjoyed the process,” said Patino, who expects to earn his associate degree in applied sciences during the next two years. “You dive into the process. There’s a little bit of theory, a little bit of calculations, and you learn to use the machines. I’ve really enjoyed the hands-on learning and applying the knowledge I’ve gained.”

Patino chose a growing, opportunity-filled sector. In a recent study, the Manufacturing Institute projected that the industry will need to fill two million jobs over the next eight years.

“It’s going to be a gold mine for skilled manufacturing people like me,” said Patino. “I want to make sure that I prepare myself properly. There’s going to be a great demand that’s going to keep increasing because a lot of the machinists and manufacturing experts are starting to approach retirement.”

Students in the program learn how to use some of the most advanced machines available in the market today. They work on computer-controlled cutting machines to cut and shape metal blocks, such as carbide, steel and aluminum, into the parts that the instructors assign.

A growing manufacturing base

Brian Fleming, Richland’s program coordinator for advanced manufacturing, said North Texas is home to several high-profile manufacturers, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Bell Helicopter and General Dynamics, as well as several dozen smaller companies, which creates opportunities for his students.

“We have 50 manufacturing companies in the immediate area,” said Fleming. “And they all use the same machines we have here.”

Fleming added that the machines in Richland’s manufacturing lab are “very high-end, state-of-the-art.” They include CNC (computer numerical control) and EDM (electrical discharge machine) devices, which use the latest technology. And learning on those machines gives his students an extra edge.

“We’re addressing the manufacturing skills gap by training students with math and blueprinting skills,” Fleming said. “They need to be able to look at a blueprint and to understand and interpret what an engineer wants to make. We take them through the whole process of manufacturing from start to finish.”

Changing career directions

Monica Lee, who has a bachelor’s degree in Western classics and who now is studying advanced manufacturing, said she expects to graduate with her associate degree in applied science by the end of next summer. The 36-year-old has a 3.8 grade point average and is an intern at Raytheon, a global, Massachusetts-based defense company with a manufacturing plant in North Texas.

“This field has given me the opportunity to use math, science and problem solving on a daily basis,” Lee said. “It’s great working there (at Raytheon). They’ve really thought through their processes, and they’re very interested in improving things all the time.”

Lee said her academic background in liberal arts prepared her for her new career path in advanced manufacturing because she learned how to work through problems.

Student Kevin Patino works on one of the milling machines in the advanced manufacturing program at Richland College. (Photo: DCCCD)

“I really have a much better appreciation for the complexity of creating these very intricate parts out of metal and what that entails,” Lee said. “I use that focus, attention to detail and open-mindedness when I’m machining.”

Crystal Muranda, a first-year student in the program, said she has enjoyed the “very complex, technical work” in machining metal parts.

Muranda said she already has an associate degree in art and technology. She worked in marketing and design, but then she realized that (field) was not what she wanted to do for a living.

“I like to work with my hands and create things, and I’m also interested in engineering because I’m good at math and science,” said Muranda. “So I decided to do this, especially because I realized the job market is in need of people and it’s growing.”

An upswing in manufacturing

According to the Dallas County Community College District’s Labor Market Intelligence Center (LMIC), CNC machining is one of the hardest positions to fill in the Dallas area. LMIC figures reveal that the manufacturing industry in the Dallas area is the sixth-largest sector by employment, and the median wage for machinists is almost $37,000 per year. In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that machinist jobs will increase nationally by about 10 percent through 2024.

According to Fleming, students who graduate from his program make around $18 per hour at their first job, and sometimes they can earn even more.  He added that job openings will start to grow in the near future.

“We have a depleting workforce because the baby boomers are about to retire,” Fleming said.

Lee said many of the employees who work at the Raytheon facility are in their 60s, so she hopes her skills and determination will lead to a job with the company because many of those workers will begin to retire in a few years.

Keeping up and moving ahead

Chondus Scott works at Stanley Black and Decker, a tool and hardware manufacturing company. He is studying to earn a certificate in Mastercam, a computer-aided manufacturing software program which the industry uses, so he can earn a promotion at work.

“Manufacturing is making a comeback in America, and if you have the skills, the sky is the limit,” said Scott, who works in the tool and die department at the company. He added that knowing the Mastercam software will help him edit the plans that engineers bring to him.

“The software will help me proof the programs which the engineers design and ensure that they run correctly on the machines,” he said.

For Aric Aucoin, who is finishing his last semester in the program, the process of cutting metal is a holistic experience, especially when he uses a milling machine.

“I like the mill, I listen to the mill, and I receive feedback from the machine,” Aucoin said. “I can control the machine, which is something you can’t do on the automated machines. It’s a very mental skill – not just physical.”

About the Author

Cesar Canizales
is associate director of public relations for the United Way of King County, Washington.