Design News readers spoke loudly and clearly after our recent news story about a resurgence in manufacturing -- and manufacturing jobs. Commenters doubted the manufacturers, describing them as H-1B visa promoters, corporate crybabies, and clowns. They argued that US manufacturers aren’t willing to train workers, preferring instead to import cheap labor from abroad.
So let’s look at a situation now being faced by a Plymouth, Mich.-based system integrator. And let’s remember, this isn’t about the entire engineering profession per se, but rather manufacturing jobs -- especially tool makers, robot programmers, mechanical designers, controls engineers, and machinists.
The Paslin Co., which designs and builds manufacturing assembly and automation systems, saw a precipitous decline in Detroit’s fortunes starting in about 2009. During that year, the auto industry hit its lowest sales numbers in 27 years, bottoming out at about 10.4 million vehicles. “Between 2009 and 2012, about half of our competitors went out of business,” Kerry Hammer, the company’s chief operating officer, told us. “It was an awful time.”
MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Manufacturers Struggle to Find Trained Tech People
From that point forward, however, the company has rebounded as auto industry sales climbed steadily back, reaching 16.4 million in 2014. To meet its needs, Paslin trained robot programmers, tool makers, mechanical designers, and machinists, many of whom came to the company straight out of high school or junior college, and earned six-figure incomes (overtime included) within a few years. Virtually all of their learning took place on the job, and often required multiple years. “Almost everybody we bring in comes to us with little or no experience,” Hammer said. “I’ve seen people go from working at a McDonalds to programming a robot. With a good attitude and a willingness to work hard, they succeed.”
Controls engineers, who typically arrive with university engineering degrees in hand, are the lone exception to that community college business model. Still, even for them, the majority of training takes place on the job.
For all of these boom employees, however, hard work is a key. Sixty-hour work weeks are routine. Many of Paslin’s technical employees are contracted out to manufacturing facilities around the world, where they log seven 12-hour work days per week. The upside is the compensation. While still in their early 20s, many on-site employees draw incomes of well over $100,000 a year (overtime included), while the company pays for their apartments, meals, and even cars.
To keep the flow of workers coming, the company has partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to formalize its training classes. It has also registered with the US Department of Labor to offer an apprenticeship program, requiring community college classes and on-the-job experience for tool makers. Graduates of the program are called journeyman tool makers.
Hammer disputes the depiction of Paslin and others as “H-1B promoters,” scheming the system to attract cheap labor from abroad. “It’s absolutely incorrect,” Hammer told us. “We won’t even consider doing that because we don’t want to deal with all the paperwork.”
Hammer acknowledges, however, that many OEMs still take the H-1B visa route when searching for design engineers. But he doesn’t see it happening among manufacturing integrators, particularly those seeking machinists, tool makers, robot programmers, and controls engineers. He also acknowledges that the five-year drought left some manufacturing people behind. “There’s a lot of frustration out there,” he said. “If you’ve been out of the industry for five years, then you’ve missed a lot of technology. And it makes it that much harder to get back in.”
Still, the need for expertise continues to grow, he stressed. Tier-one suppliers and OEMs are constantly looking for trained people and many seek Paslin’s employees. And customers, he said, often seek more contract help than Paslin is able to supply. “I just left a facility that said if we could supply 40 more people tomorrow, they would take them in,” Hammer said.
”Manufacturers need these skills very badly,” he added. “Right now, the demand is outweighing the supply. It’s real.”
Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.