Technical machinist training a new route to success

Four years out of Bayshore High School, 21-year-old Maria Garcia has a career that is very different from what most high-school graduates would even consider.

She chose not to go to college. Instead, she attended Manatee Technical Institute for courses in drafting and then in precision machining. She now works as a specialty machinist within a St. Petersburg company that makes parts out of both plastic and metal.

Often, Garcia finds herself making an aluminum or stainless steel part from start to finish.

She uses fancy computer programs to design the components.

Then, she enlists this data to program expensive computer-driven milling machines, which convert what were sketches into cold, hard steel or aluminum.

“Drafting was very cool,” Garcia said, “but it opened up my mind to see that there was more than that, a huge field to be experienced.”

There is a transition going on in American education, in which demand for manufacturing-related skills like those Garcia learned can be more more valuable than a traditional college education. Businesses, philanthropic organizations and technical schools have recognized this shift and sought to capitalize on it in Southwest Florida, a region where economic developers have been working for decades to diversify the employment base beyond its focus on construction, tourism and the service industry.

Manatee Tech, which is scheduled to open its new campus Tuesday on State Road 70, has been long established in Southwest Florida as the place to go to learn basic metal-working skills.

Meanwhile, Sarasota County Technical Institute, which gave up on machinist training during the real estate boom in 2006, is gearing up to offer the training anew in the fall as the school moves into new space on its existing campus at Proctor Road and Beneva Road.

To get his million-dollar program under way, SCTI director Todd Bowden relied on a comprehensive survey of the region’s manufacturers, conducted by a career-promoting non-profit called CareerEdge.

“They cannot fill these positions. We do not have the trained people for these higher-paying manufacturing jobs,” said Mireya Eavey, CareerEdge’s executive director. “We showed how, with a $4,000 investment in a machining certification program, when you graduate you will be hired at approximately $30,000 right out of school.”

On-the-job training, coupled with time-and-a-half pay for overtime, pushes those yearly pay levels higher at a surprising rate. “In two years, you will be between $40,000 and $50,000, and within five-six years you will be at $60,000 to $80,000 a year,” Eavey said.

The shortage in these positions is not just a regional phenomenon.

“We are sending our kids to college and creating a lot of workers who don’t have any unique or differentiating skills,” said Mitch Free, a former machinist who now runs a multimillion-dollar Atlanta company that matches machine shops with jobs, many of which get farmed out to Asia.

“Speaking with owners of machine shops, I am hearing from them that they have job openings they can’t fill, and they are willing to pay for it, good wages,” Free said.

For 20 years, learning machine tool skills has been a losing battle in the United States, because manufacturers were out-sourcing their work to Asia, where workers could be hired to create steel injection molds for far less.

But the tide is turning.

Computerized milling machines, known in the trade as CNC machines, are making the difference, because they put the premium on fewer workers with more smarts.

A typical custom machine shop will still use old-style mills and lathes to get a piece of steel blocked out into an exact rectangle or turned into a perfect cylindrical tube.

But then the shop will lock the work piece into a CNC machine, in which robotic cutters, bits or electrodes are used to sculpt the steel into the exact shape required.

A U.S. advantage

Bowden, the SCTI director, is reaching out to the area’s high school students to recruit his first class this month, starting with two dozen young adults.

They will each pay $4,000, with the rest of the million-dollar start-up costs being absorbed by the Sarasota County School Board coupled with some donations from the manufacturing community.

“That covers everything — tuition, fees, consumables, uniforms, everything they need for the 11-month curriculum,” Bowden said.

Students will begin 30-hour weeks on Aug. 21, 2013, with the course ending in late June 2014.

Once the program gets grounded, Bowden foresees using the same shop to run an evening program, which could help people who already are working but want to gain further skills.

The husband-and-wife team that owns Venice’s Atlantic Mold & Machining Corp. are eager to see the SCTI program get under way.

Brian Schmidt and wife Jennifer Behrens-Schmidt employ just a few highly skilled machinists to turn out very complicated steel molds for creating intricate plastic parts.

While Garcia cranks out physical components designed to be used as-is, the tool-and-die work like Atlantic does is even more intricate.

Workers at the Venice company create the exact steel cavity, complete with cooling channels, that will become the centerpiece for a machine that cranks out the plastic parts.

While the part might be tiny and weigh less than a gram, the mold into which the molten plastic is injected could weigh hundreds of pounds or more and include dozens of separate steel parts.

Holding up a finished part that will be used in abdominal surgery, Jennifer Behrens-Schmidt reveals her sales advantage over an overseas firm.

“Companies sourcing these molds, they aren’t just going to the lower bidder,” she said. “It’s a huge collaboration.”

Being able to work closely with clients on complex projects is a real advantage for the U.S. shops, says Peter Straw, executive director at the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturing Association, or SAMA.

“If I have a company in Sarasota, and I am using dies like Jennifer makes, I can get over there in an afternoon and get any issue resolved,” Straw said.

Case in point: One of Atlantic’s best clients is Tervis Tumbler, which makes its insulated drinkware in the same industrial park.

Greater earning power

While Garcia learned enough from MTI instructor Bob Williams to get her first real job, others, like 55-year old Lisa Payette, are using the same course of study to enhance their earning power.

After years of landing factory jobs and then losing them to out-sourcing decisions, Payette is now employed at the Sarasota division of Gainesville-based Exactech Inc., which makes knee and hip replacements.

Her employer started asking her to run CNC machines. Recognizing her promise as a worker, Exactech then offered her the chance to go to MTI for basic training.

Payette, who had been in manufacturing for 35 years, found herself engaged in very basic exercises, such as creating what Williams calls a 1-2-3 block out of stainless steel.

She started by cutting off a small chunk of steel from a three-foot long piece of stock.

Using manually operated precision grinders, she had to end up with a block that is a 1-by-2-by-3-inch rectangle, perfectly flat on each side, and made within one thousandth of an inch of the size specified by the teacher.

Her first time through the process took 22 hours in the shop. This is a job that a set of CNC machine tools might have been able to do in an hour or two.

But Payette says manually sculpting the steel, and also working with more basic computerized tools at MTI, have given her a better feeling for the limits of the raw material and of the computerized tools she uses at Exactech, where one machine might cost $200,000.

“You have to be so careful with those expensive machines. One wrong push of the button and you cause major damage,” she said.

She already has seen that happen, where a worker was changing over a CNC milling machine to make a different part, but failed to change the machine code that instructs the machine what to do.

The robotic arm, thinking it was moving through air, slammed straight into the chunk of metal it was supposed to sculpt.

“It was like a freight train,” Payette said. “There must have been like $30,000 in damage.”