Industry Market Trends
IMT Exclusive Q&A: CNC Jobs' Robert Lawson on the Manufacturing Labor Shortage
September 18, 2012
Robert Lawson, founder of CNC Jobs LLC and CNCJobs.net, spoke one-on-one with IMT at the IMTS show last week about what manufacturing leaders can do to fill positions with the best talent. Securing the right employees for unfilled manufacturing jobs is a venture that led Robert Lawson to found CNC Jobs LLC in 2003 and CNCJobs.net, a full service employment resource. A manufacturing leader, Lawson has spent over 38 years owning and operating machine tool, cutting tool and Tier 1 and 2 high-performance manufacturing companies across five countries, and is adamant about leaders taking the right steps to train workers who will help the resurgence of "Made in America." In 2010, he partnered CNC Jobs with Trillium Employment Sources to match the best candidates with employers, and last year he created "Fast Track," a series of CNC training courses developed through affiliations with technical schools and Haas Technical Education Center (HTEC). At this year's IMTS show in Chicago, Lawson stepped away from hosting the show's first "Job Center" to deliver a speech entitled "Why Can't I Find Skilled Labor When I Have Jobs Available?" The speech highlighted the urgent need for specialized education and what manufacturing leaders need to do to secure the best workers for their operations. Lawson spoke with IMT in an exclusive interview. IMT: What can manufacturers do to help fill jobs in the United States? Robert Lawson: When you start adding up quality control issues, shipping costs going up and labor costs now tightening up, there becomes less of a desire to be anywhere else [than America]. I don't think manufacturers in general have anything to do themselves. I don't think they have to do a lot of costing out to see that there's going to be a much greater opportunity here. That side of it is pretty easy right now, and it hasn't been that way for a while. IMT: Does leadership play a role in filling jobs on the shop floor? RL: Here's where we get to the problem: how do we keep the machines running? We've made the decision that we're bringing jobs back and we're going to start making the parts here, but where do we find people to run the machines? Where do we find the people to check the parts? Where do we find the people to manage the people running the machines? Unfortunately, there's been a big transition in the last three years (from 2009 through 2012), and that transition was a disfavor with manufacturing amongst a lot of people who lost their jobs and then lost their homes, and had to move and replant somewhere else, and so they gave up on manufacturing. The big companies retired masses of higher paying jobs which were the skilled jobs, they retired them early, offered them buyouts - huge mistakes were made. However, it's been done, you can't change that. What do we do now? We get involved with the educational programs or onsite training. The quickest option is onsite training. We are doing our own training for obvious reasons: if I don't have enough people, I'm out of business, so we're very heavily involved in training onsite, but U.S. manufacturers have got to set up their own in-house training. [Manufacturing leaders] have been saying for a while that we're bringing the work back and we don't have the time... they're going to have to make the time, that's the only way. First and foremost, manufacturers that have the jobs have to start throwing training programs onsite. Second, they have to communicate with schools and technical programs in getting the word out about these programs and to start promoting manufacturing in this country. That's the biggest issue altogether. IMT: Given the worker shortage, why do you think manufacturing opportunities are so underpublicized? RL: It all goes back to 2009. Also, I wish that you could parade every [job] counselor in America through this show in some way, shape or form. They don't have a clue what we're doing in this world, in this industry. The counselors have got to have the awareness first, and it's got to be the high school counselors. The money has to be poured back into those programs. Parents need to be aware that when their kid says I want to go to shop class, that's a good thing, not a bad thing. There aren't enough good qualified teachers in those technical programs to be able to make that point clear. Why? Their programs have been cut. The money has been taken out of those programs. With programs like HTEC you'd be amazed to see all the schools that are involved. But the politicians don't even take the time to look at them; they just want to talk about the numbers. The politicians need to realize what the truth is: the educational system is destroying our economy, because we're trying to do nothing but graduate kids with $100,000 of school debt. That's what's hurting our economy. IMT: Can you give me an example of manufacturers who run successful training initiatives? RL: The big companies, General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, they've all got programs that they're working with. Those are the ones that are doing it right, and one is our new client, based in Louisiana. They are growing in leaps and bounds in new products. They are in the food processing and manufacturing world, which is all stainless steels and high-tech, with environmental control. They produce probably 30 percent of this particular product for the world market, so they've got multiple facilities. When you've got a couple of major hurricanes in the south, and when you have the devastation of people moving out of the market, there are very few good examples of available talent down there. They've realized that they need to do something proactive... we are developing a program [with them]. I have clients right now that are working 70 to 80 hours a week. It's almost dangerous but they don't have any option. That's in the Detroit market and these are aerospace companies. They're working three or four machines instead of one or two machines. They're putting cells together. They're doing anything they can do to get the work out the door. Is that right? No, but it's necessary. There's no option to that. When I look back at major manufacturers that I know, there are pockets like that company. The ones that seem to have the funding are setting up programs, but they are catch-up programs. It's hard to make up the losses that they've experienced quickly enough. IMT: What are the most effective programs that leaders can implement? RL: The ones that have to do it need training programs on the machines. If not, you're going to dedicate a year or six months to a classroom and then try to run a machine. It's got to be a combined effort between the two. That's what our programs are: they are onsite, working with their machines and their people.