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Manufacturer confronts worker shortage

AT THEIR WORK STATION, Markus Gudel, left, and Eric Bain work on a Miyano computer numeric control (CNC) lathe at Precision Plus Inc., Elkhorn. The two were part of the company’s first summer internship program. Gudel is working during winter break from his engineering studies at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. Bain is now a full-time employee at Precision Plus and taking courses at Gateway Technical College. Both are Elkhorn Area High School graduates.

January 07, 2014 | 03:52 PM
Precision Plus Inc., Elkhorn, would like to expand.

The company, which manufactures precision components for use in military ordnance to parts for expensive jewelry, has enough business to expand.

The question is whether the company can find enough trained employees to do the work, said Barry Butters, Precision Plus’ director of training and education.

Michael Reader, president of Precision Plus, is organizing a training program to provide practical experience for high school and college students interested in the technical aspects of precision manufacturing.

Manufacturing suffers from an age-old image of being a dirty, dangerous kind of work that involves a lot of mindless repetition.

That no longer applies, Butters said.

In a recent interview, Reader said the industry needs to change its image and reach out to students who might otherwise believe that manufacturing is not for them.

A long-time teacher at Elkhorn Area High School, Butters left his position as principal of the Williams Bay High School/Middle School after just one year to take the education position at Precision Plus.

Butters said he was hired to grow a training system for interns that fills some of that gap between expectations and available skills.

Butters said that last year, while still principal in Williams Bay, he placed one Bay student, Martin Korsholm, into Precision Plus’ internship program.

Korsholm is now taking engineering courses at Purdue University, Butters said.

Butters said Precision Plus is also reaching out to area schools, Elkhorn, Badger, Delavan, East Troy and Whitewater, as well as schools south of the state border.

Manufacturing is now dominated by computer programming, said Butters.

“The type of skilled labor we need has drastically changed,” he said.

Precision Plus was started in 1988 by Phil Reader, Michael Reader’s father.

The company operated for years with Swiss-made Turnos lathes.

Turnos lathes are precision metal milling machines, able to turn out parts for watches and other small mechanisms.

The metal stock that cuts into shape moves while the cutting elements remain stationary.

The exact movements of the stock over the cutting arms are controlled by an analog system using a turning cam.

Although the Turnos machines are 50 years old, they are still useful in producing certain parts, particularly very small precision cut pieces, Butters said.

But starting in 2000, Precision Plus began purchasing computer numeric control, or CNC, machines, which are newer, faster and even more precise than the Tornos machines.

As the name implies, CNC machines are programmed in advance.

Bar stock is fed into the machine and computer-controlled arms with a variety of cutting tools and motions turn the raw material into finished product, some of it very intricate and all of it very precise.

As smart as the machines are, the operators need to be smarter, said Butters.

“We need people who can think and solve problems,” he said.

This past summer, Precision Plus began an internship program with 10 interns from both high school and college.

Precision Plus had never had interns before, Reader said.

But training is not easy to find, at least not around here.

Gateway Technical College teaches CNC technology, but only at its Racine campus, Reader said.

“If you’re a fish in Lake Michigan, it’s great. If you’re in Walworth County it sucks,” Reader said.

Butters said the company decided that it wouldn’t try to be exclusive about its training.

“We decided we’re not trying to find someone who might be productive in our firm, but rather we want to turn out ambassadors for our field,” Butters said. “Many of these young people will go on to a four-year school.”

Most of last summer’s interns will probably end up as mechanical engineers, Butters said. That internship program extended into this school year, and three students, two from Elkhorn and one from Badger High School, are now spending several hours every morning before school learning hands-on about precision manufacturing on CNC machines.

In part, Precision Plus’ decision to establish its own education program goes back to last year’s defeat of the Gateway Technical College referendum.

The Gateway referendum that was so soundly defeated last spring would have moved some CNC training to the Elkhorn campus, Reader said.

To be fair, the referendum question included funds for more than manufacturing education.

And there were indications that some of those add-ons may have contributed to the referendum’s defeat.

Gateway made it clear that the referendum was a one-shot effort. There will be no second try.

While sympathetic to those who want to keep their property taxes in line, Reader said the referendum’s failure now makes it important for local manufacturers to fill the education gap.

Reader doesn’t lay all the blame for the skills shortage at the feet of educators.

“The industry has some blood on its hands in the current situation,” Reader said.

He said the industry business as a whole has done a bad job of advancing itself as a career alternative.

Some manufacturers are interested only in their quarterly bottom line.

But Reader also said that he and others are getting a network together to promote manufacturing as a career.

“We had to do it ourselves to drive this forward,” Reader said of the education program.

Among the supporters of the education program, Reader said, is Gary Huss, president of Hudapack Metal Treatment Inc., Elkhorn.

Butters said he’s working Elkhorn Area High School to develop a course sequence to teach CNC skills to students.

The company is also reaching out to Beloit Memorial High School, which made a major investment in its introduction to industrial design program.

The company is also creating a classroom with eight work stations for the interns there. The eight work stations are courtesy of a $40,000 donation from a software distributor, Reader said.

Butters said it will take some time to develop a curriculum.

However, it would be similar to what is taught in technical colleges. It might be a three-semester sequence, however that remains to be seen, Butters said.

Reader said he’s also been in contact with Gateway about training inadequacies.

Ultimately, the technical colleges will have to take over the lion’s share of training.

Manufacturing companies aren’t set up as educational institutions, he said.

“Our people, while great machinists, may not be great educators,” Reader said.

“We need to get the educators and (school) administrators here,” Reader said.

Reader started drawing attention to the skills gap in local training in late 2012, when 24 area administrators, guidance counselors and educators were invited to tour Precision Plus and discuss the manufacturing opportunities available for high school graduates in the area.

With Elkhorn Area High School, Reader then organized a career panel of five manufacturing professionals and 180 students from Badger, Williams Bay and Elkhorn high schools.

The career panel led Reader to start the intern program that summer with 10 interns, which included three college students majoring in engineering, four high school graduates interested in engineering and three high school students, two from Elhorn and one from Richmond Burton High School, Ill.

Butters said students need to be informed of the availability of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and the United States.

He said the manufacturing industry offers trained workers a good, middle class salary, starting at $30,000 a year and going to as much as $90,000.

The days of young people going to college to find out what they want to do with their lives is over, as tuition costs force students further and further into debt, Butters said.

“Now, students have to go to school with a purpose,” he said.

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