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Re-tool or die.

Vocational-technical educators show manufacturing employers they're serious about overhauling outdated programs and doing what it takes to solve a skilled worker shortage.

Last year Wisconsin employers plastered a Milwaukee Area Technical College placement office with 413 lucrative openings for tool-and-die makers, machinists and welders. The college's machine trades programs graduated 50.

In Pittsburgh, frustrated employers find they must petition school boards to keep high school metalworking programs alive and well.

A Michigan search firm has more than 700 openings for skilled jobs that can pay between $50,000 and $70,000 a year but don't require a college degree. Yet the quality of the labor pool is so dismal that the firm often has to recruit from other companies - and worse, outside the United States.

Across the country business owners in the manufacturing sector warn of a looming workforce crisis that threatens their ability to compete in a global market. While manufacturing contributes less to the U.S. GDP than it did in earlier decades, (17 percent in 1994 compared with 28 percent in 1959), it still accounts for 18.5 million jobs. But thousands of those jobs are vacant, largely because of changing skill requirements and a dampening of interest in manufacturing careers among America's youth.

There are 20,000 openings in the tool-making industry alone, and the future looks even bleaker. Hordes of veteran craftspeople are nearing retirement - about a quarter-million from the automotive industry will leave between now and 2002 - and there are precious few qualified candidates in the pipeline to fill the vacancies.

"The industry is aging," says Phyllis Eisen of the National Association of Manufacturers. "Kids coming out of the high schools just do not have the skills. Industry is spending billions of dollars on remedial education."

One reason is that employers in the manufacturing sector have gotten a lot choosier about the caliber of worker they need. Computer-driven mills and lathes require a new mathematical mind-set. Streamlined workplaces mean less. segmentation of jobs, more direct contact with customers and more collaboration with coworkers. Most important, employers say, is a worker's ability to learn new technology and techniques in a fluid marketplace.

"We say to the schools: 'Deliver to us adults who have learned to learn,'" says Jim Burge, a retired corporate vice president for Motorola and a member of the National Skill Standards Board. "Educators should increasingly recognize that they need to give skills to students that will help them succeed in today's workplace," an environment where managers rely on technical workers to make decisions and handle a variety of tasks.

Some vocational-technical educators may look upon the current state of the U.S. manufacturing workforce as payback time for school boards and superintendents who targeted expensive high school trades programs for cuts. Employers agree, but only to a point. High school automotive and metalworking programs that function like "hobby shops" or dumping grounds for problem students aren't much help anyway, they say. But they do acknowledge that academically rigorous, standards-based programs that begin in high school and connect to both college and industry are the best hope for a long-term solution.

Up the learning curve

No one knows that better than Gerry Hope, a metalworking instructor for Pankow Career Center in Clinton Township, Michigan. Hope received two school-to-work grants from the state to create Metalworks, a curriculum model based on 1994 standards released by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. The grants, totaling $107,000, were more than an extra income source that Hope could use to finetune his program. They were a lifeline to area employers.

Hope's program, like most other secondary machining programs across the country, was suffering. He had felt powerless to cure it. His equipment was 20 years out of date, but there wasn't enough money in the regular school district budget to upgrade the lab. Many students who signed up were there as a last resort. Business owners didn't want to contribute to a program that wasn't producing qualified graduates. When the NIMS standards came out, Hope saw a way to break the cycle.

"I was tired of spinning my wheels," Hope says. "We had old machines that were tired. Industry doesn't want to train the kids you've got anyway. It was extremely important that we create credibility."

With the NIMS standards anchoring his program, Hope has been able to persuade local employers that his program produces capable graduates. In turn, employers are pleased to supply the payoff - strong job prospects.

Business is good for the shops that produce dies, molds and machine tools, which are used to shape metal for a wide range of products from razor blades to car parts. That's true in Clinton Township, as it is in the rest of the country. Smaller shops, which produce the bulk of machine tools in the U.S., employ 400,000 and sell more than $20 billion annually, according to the National Tooling and Machining Association.

At the same time, the U.S. shops face a serious threat from Asian competitors, who control 40 percent of the worldwide market already and are aggressively pursuing an even larger share, according to Fortune magazine. One advantage that competitors in Japan and Taiwan have is a governmental commitment to training.

"It used to be that your market was within 50 miles of your shop. Now it's all global," says Matthew B. Coffey, executive director of the National Tooling and Machining Association. "The differences are low-wage workers and government subsidies for worker training in other countries. This has dramatically affected the competitiveness of small companies."

This worldwide market pressure has forced U.S. businesses to upgrade their technology and prepare themselves to compete for ever-more demanding customers. Such a market places a premium on the skilled worker who can cut and shape metal to tolerances measured in thousandths of an inch.

A mid-ranked specialist can make $41,000 a year, which is $10,000 more than the average earnings of a 26-year-old with a bachelor's degree, according to Labor Department figures.

But the same market that is driving up wages demands a new kind of worker who can read blueprints (sometimes on a computer screen), operate sophisticated machinery, make critical decisions and work directly with the customer. Grimy shops are tidying up and making way for million-dollar automatic machining centers that move parts, change grinders and drills as needed and make precision cuts according to a technician's programmed instructions.

Coffey explains the job of today's tool maker this way:

"You start with a customer who tells you the part he wants to build. The tool maker gets what the customer has described either in a drawing or just the math data that you have to plug into a CAD (computer-automated drafting) program. The tool maker must know how to download data from the customer's computer into his, then decide whether his computer is capable of reading the data accurately.

"Then, how in the world do you program this job so the part comes out all right on your machine? Once it's programmed, the tool maker must determine whether what the customer has designed can in fact be built. If not, the tool maker has to go back and say, 'If we could change this angle, then the geometry is correct and the machine is capable of making it. Or, are you willing to pay the high cost of having this done by hand?' because the machine is not capable of reaching certain angles. You are constantly doing trig, you are constantly doing geometry. You really have to think in geometry because what you are doing is building the reverse third dimension of what the customer has drawn."

Yet few education programs exist to prepare young people for this performance level. NTMA works with high schools and two-year colleges, and its own 14 centers turned out 2,500 graduates in 1996. Just 42 community colleges offer metalworking programs that the NTMA has determined to be up to snuff. The other common source of workers - high school metalworking programs - has been decimated, anecdotal evidence shows.

"We know that here in southeast Wisconsin quite a number of public schools are dismantling or closing down voc ed programs at a scary rate," says Jerry Edquist, president and CEO of Carlson Tool and Manufacturing in Cedarburg. "At the same time, the demand for skilled people in this trade is growing. Things are going in the opposite direction."

National clout

Although some excellent, pioneering vo-tech metalworking programs have been around since the early 1990s - Tulsa Technology Center's Craftsmanship 2000 and the Ford Academy for Manufacturing Sciences to name two - the NIMS standards were the first industry-wide effort to set a national benchmark. NIMS is composed of representatives from all the metalworking specialties, from mold making (forming molds to shape plastic, glass and other nonmetallic parts) to die making (cutting steel) to precision machining.

The standards for machining specify three skill levels, with rigorous, national performance tests tied to each. Those who pass all of the "test pieces," which involve producing a part to a certain tolerance, are eligible to take a written exam that can earn them a NIMS credential. The organization also certifies teachers and courses. The national stamp of approval can give a vocational instructor the bona fides that employers seek before they will commit to a partnership.

Hope used his 1995 grant to buy himself a few hours of release time each day. In about a year, he and 18 business advisory committee members had put together a curriculum and designed a marketing plan. They came up with a metalworking tech prep program delivered in a three-hour time block - two hours are hands-on technical learning and one hour is a math course covering algebra, trigonometry and geometry.

The program is allied with nearby Macomb Community College, so a successful graduate will leave the two-year high school program with 13 college credits - four hours for math and nine for machining. Ideally, graduates line up an apprenticeship that enables them to attend school in the mornings and work in the afternoons.

The Pankow Career Center's NIMS-based metalworking program has been in high gear only for a year, but Hope finds the results encouraging. Of the 12 seniors who graduated last spring, half said they planned to enroll in community college, two are in apprenticeships, two others are in technical colleges and a third entered the Navy as a machinist. The program also qualified 30 students for two or more national exams. Sixteen received at least one certification, and two passed all eight areas for Level I.

As the start of the fall 1997 school year approached, Hope anticipated having 12 returning seniors, four returning juniors and about 20 new enrollees in his program. Area businesses have contributed $100,000 to upgrade Hope's shop, which is about half-finished. Hope wants to share his program with other metalworking instructors. The curriculum, on computer disk, is available for the asking.

Even though vocational educators have a long history of working with industry, Hope says they must take the effort a step farther. "There never was a pulling together before," he says. "We never really understood what employers needed, and our product was never what industry needed." Since Pankow maintains a manufacturing course geared to special needs students, Hope has been able to sell Metalworks as an "elite" option that is clearly tied to college. The parents of every freshman, sophomore and junior in the L'Anse Creuse school district received a letter and a brochure last winter detailing the new metalworking tech prep program. There were 63 applicants for 40 slots. Hope and representatives from industry and Macomb Community College met with about 50 applicants to explain the screening process they'd have to go through.

Each student would have to take a computerized pre-test that spits out a personality profile and rates his or her mechanical aptitude, spatial and logic skills. Hope reviews transcripts and attendance records. Some students are interviewed.

"The whole process has allowed us to be more selective," Hope says, and that has helped him impress employers and parents.

Parents are paramount

Metalworking's image - that of the manual laborer bent over a grinder in a grimy, noisy shop - is the industry's albatross, employers and vocational instructors agree. The only way to combat it is an all-out campaign to educate parents, counselors and school board members about the new workplace and the education programs that supply it.

Ralph Miller, president of the executive search firm MSX International in Madison Heights, Michigan, visits Detroit schools to pique kids' interest in manufacturing careers. When he asks his young audience to list well-paying jobs, they never list manufacturing, he says, even though some of the best-paid workers contracted through MSX are skilled tradespeople.

"We've tried everything under the sun" to change attitudes and improve school offerings," Miller says. "[The American] belief system has been that if parents work hard and send their kids to college and have them become doctors and lawyers and dentists, that's what it's all about. The manufacturing trades carry a real stigma from parents, teachers and counselors. And so we have Ph.D.s driving taxi cabs because they can't find jobs."

In some areas, employers have gone before school boards to urge members to expand (or in some cases save) vocational-technical programs geared to the manufacturing trades. Edquist of Carlson Tool, through his NTMA chapter, is involved in a public relations effort directed at the Milwaukee Public Schools. His company invites guidance counselors and teachers in for plant tours and gives presentations at the schools. In fall 1996, he went before the school board and made a pitch for metalworking programs that link with Milwaukee's excellent technical college system. "It is costly to have metalworking labs, so often the conclusion is, 'Well, let's not do that.'"

Edquist says he got a polite response from a passive audience. The school board passed a resolution directing the school administration to include NTMA in a business-industry-labor coalition that advises the schools. "At least we carried the message forward," he says.

One corporation advises vocational-technical educators not to chafe against the American Dream but to embrace it through the tech prep option. Siemens, the German-based electronics manufacturer, has 25 successful tech prep/apprenticeship programs in place throughout the United States. A flagship model in Lake Mary, Florida, funnels high school students into associate degree programs - all paid for by Siemens. Ultimately, the company has offered technician-level jobs, which start at no less than $25,000 a year, to each of its approximately 200 graduates. The company says it saves $10,000 in training costs for each employee who comes through the program.

"The opposition to tech prep and school-to-work says that business is trying to pigeonhole kids and create automatons," says John Tobin, Siemens's director of applied technology training. "But we believe we give our young people one more opportunity than other kids in class. They have all the choices that their friends do, plus the choice of continuing to work with us while they get their further education. They also have a career pathway that can lead them into management and engineering and other higher-level positions. Parents do not oppose this once they understand that they are giving their children more options, not fewer."

When Milwaukee Area Technical College hosts open houses, Associate Dean Dorothy Walker stresses the wide-ranging career opportunities that her manufacturing background afforded her. "I got my degree at MATC, then I got a job in the [machine tool] industry, then I came back to MATC as an instructor. I say to parents, 'Look at what's available in four-year colleges, then look at the skilled jobs you can access. Look at the demand, and look at how you can build a career.'"

Last year, all six graduates of the MATC computer-controlled machining program were snapped up by local employers, and 93 percent of its other machine tool program graduates got jobs in the field.

A college-only mindset that dates back to the GI Bill will take a generation to change, says Coffey, because parents need more proof that their children have other options to get ahead. Perhaps the message is best expressed by 17-year-old tool-making apprentice Steven Massetti, a graduate of Gerry Hope's program who is one of the first to receive a NIMS Level I credential:

"I'm a lot better off than some of my friends are. By the time they get out of college in four years, I'll have a house and they'll move back in with their parents. A lot of people think, 'Oh, I'll go to college for four years, then wake up and have a job.' Well, that's not how it works."

For More Information

* National Tooling & Machining Association, Fort Washington, Maryland; (301) 248-6200.

* David Passmore, The Pennsylvania State University, Workforce Education and Development program, 305D J. Orvis Keller Building, University Park, PA 16802-1303;

* Phyllis Eisen, Center for Workforce Success, National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C.; (202) 637-3011

* Dorothy Walker, associate dean of manufacturing programs, Milwaukee Area Technical College; (414) 297-6501

* Gerry Hope, project director, L'Anse Creuse Public Schools, Clinton Township, MD (810)-783-6570, ext. 8682.

* Bob Sherman, National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Washington, D.C.; (202) 281-1610

* AYES-Stan Moore, General Motors, Detroit, Michigan; (313) 556-0875
COPYRIGHT 1997 Association for Career and Technical Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:improving vocational-technical programs
Author:Dykman, Ann
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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