High-tech auto workers in short supply

Aug 25, 2011

Just two years after General Motors and Chrysler Corp. emerged from bankruptcy, the job retraining programs at Macomb Community College have experienced a sudden surge in auto suppliers hoping to hire unemployed workers trained by MCC in high-tech manufacturing processes.

At a local jobs fair two weeks ago, more than a dozen auto industry companies seeking employees complained that MCC had produced just 25 students to hire.

“This field is hot right now. It … seems like ‘auto’ has come back out of nowhere,” said Gary Walters, MCC professor of applied technology.

At a Wednesday forum on MCC’s south campus in Warren, college officials told President Obama’s new auto recovery czar, Jay Williams, that they are successfully training displaced workers for new careers, particularly in the defense industry. But they’re concerned that too many adults and college students have given up on a career with the Big Three or their suppliers.

“So many families have told their kids to make a commitment not to go into this industry because it’s cyclical,” said MCC President Jim Jacobs.

In addition, parents are also dodging another ride on the Big Three roller coaster.

One of Walters’ new students, Craig Fowlds, said he has worked in the past as a designer for General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, as well as General Dynamics and other manufacturers. Now that he finds himself once again in the unemployed category, he hopes his MCC training will lead him to a new career.

“I want to get away from auto. As we just heard, auto is coming back but it’s very unpredictable. I’ve been through many ups and downs over the last 15 years, in drafting and design and stuff,” said Fowlds during his third day in Walters’ class.

“I want to get into the more advanced manufacturing — there’s defense, the music industry, medical markets, aerospace, aeronautics. I want to get away from the automotive markets … I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket like I did with design.”

The industrial classroom that officials visited teaches an advanced version of Computer Numeric Control, or CNC, which requires a machinist to work on computers to calculate the programming necessary to produce a precision part or product.

The days of rote button-pushing for machinists is over, Jacobs said, as low-wage overseas competitors have forced the 21st Century American manufacturing worker to learn “skill sets that are much, much more intense, more difficult.”

CNC students, even those who have backgrounds in machining or computer design, must pass a 7-week, 140-hour crash course that requires learning basic trigonometry and mastering sophisticated software. Williams said his hands-on experience at the college was instructive, especially when compared to the bureaucratic language of Washington.

“These are individuals with real lives, with real experiences — the woman who is, in mid-life, saying that she is, if necessary, willing to go back and study trigonometry … the individual who served in our Armed Forces who is understanding the need to transfer those skills to real-life-worker mode opportunities,” he said.

“We … have to make sure that when there is a lot of debate in Washington about whether to invest in the future, to invest in these programs, that (MCC) story is compellingly told through these individuals who are seeking success.”

Williams, who took over two weeks ago as Obama’s Executive Director of Recovery for Automotive Communities, said the MCC approach could become a “model” for job training programs across the nation in areas that were heavily dependent on the Big Three.

The former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, a steel town near the Pennsylvania border, Williams said he feels “at home” in the blue-collar environs of Macomb County.

The retraining students he met talked of their past lives in manufacturing as machinists, quality engineers, electrical engineers and designers. According to college faculty, most seeking skills in CNC or other industrial processes fall into one of three categories: blue-collar workers, mostly those with auto industry experience; military veterans; and white collar professionals, particularly those with engineering or information technology backgrounds.

MCC officials told the new czar that their average student is a displaced worker in their late 40s or early 50s who is seeking a “next phase in life.” Some trainees, they said, have been drifting for up to 10 years after losing a longtime position in their chosen profession, in the meantime accepting odd jobs or bouncing from company to company while seeking a new direction.

The main MCC job retraining program is funded by a $5 million grant received in 2010 from the U.S Department of Labor to transition displaced auto workers to the defense industry. So far, the program has graduated 768 people, of which 272 have landed jobs at a wide array of companies. The ratio of job placement, according to MCC Provost Jim Sawyer, will pick up as the southeast Michigan economy continues to revive.

Macomb County officials at all levels, including Assistant County Executive Melissa Roy, believe that Macomb’s burgeoning defense corridor along Van Dyke and Mound roads will lead the way in an economic resurgence. Roy said the county’s path out of economic hard times will be led by the auto and defense industries “feeding off of each other.”

U.S. Rep. Sander Levin agrees, saying that the local synergy between those engaged in the design and production of military combat vehicles and those working on commercial cars and trucks will pay off, with help from MCC’s retraining programs.

“This is exciting,” the congressman said. “We’re well on our way back.”