Opinion: Let’s problem-solve how we truly can close the skills gap.

Opinion: How can we solve the manufacturing skills gap? We each must become ambassadors for our industry. Our message needs to showcase machining and manufacturing.

“It’s not dirty.” 

Have you heard this when someone is trying to describe machining to people who know little or nothing about our trade?

Really? Is this the best message we have? How many of you think that the amount of dirt and grease involved is the primary factor that people consider when choosing a career path? 

I make a motion that we think about this message and all the other messages we use in our efforts to recruit potential machinists into the trade.

Let’s Define the Skills Gap Problem

But before we jump right into the solution, a key part of any good problem-solving effort is to define the problem.

We have all heard about how many jobs are available in manufacturing. We know the need in our companies and in our local manufacturing marketplaces. We need more qualified, hardworking, engaged, capable people with practical mathematic and mechanical aptitudes. And once we find those people, we need to invest a significant amount of time and resources in training them. It would be best if they would stay in the industry for a while so we could realize a return on our investment.

SOURCE: Deloitte, “2018 Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap and Future of Work Study

While we are considering this target audience, what is it exactly that we are looking for? Do we want a massive number of people who can join the industry as operators? If we get this pool big enough and deep enough, there is certain to be a percentage who can surface to the top as programmers, managers and, heck, even owners.

Is it time for us, as an industry, to become a little more sophisticated in our recruiting practices? Sure, we want the masses to join the industry. But isn’t what we are really screaming for is more talent, like the top 5 percent of machinists in every shop? Isn’t it easier to find a dozen operator types who could work with your top people to support their efforts than to find one of the top industry talents?

What is the honest impact of this true need on your company? What are the limitations on your business due to the limited number of truly talented people you have? How much more could your company grow if you had more people capable of really understanding how to make complex parts? And what if you had more people who could successfully envision the manufacturing process leveraging all available technologies—machine tools, cutting tools, workholding, software and robotics?

Do we need operators or highly skilled programmers? We need both. But is our messaging getting us either?

The Manufacturing Skills Gap Recruiting Strategy Gap

What are we currently saying as an industry with our messaging in manufacturing recruiting strategies?

  • “If you are not interested in college as your primary career path, this is a great alternative for you to consider.”
  • “These jobs pay well.” We say that and then we publish starting wages of $12 per hour.
  • And the target of this article: “It’s not dirty.”  We all agree that a clean 5S or 6S work environment is a good thing. Occasionally getting dirty is just not something that a machinist really thinks deeply about.

We could add a few more of our standard lines, but let’s stop and look more closely at these three. Do you really think any of these messages have prospective recruits or their parents running to the local trade school to sign up for classes? Is this really the message you share with your nieces and nephews? Your own kids? Would any of these messages get you into the industry? Probably not.

We sell ourselves short as salespeople. If you are a shop owner, could you be successful in working with your bank with the message of “It’s Not Dirty”? Does the bank really care? Do any of the people in the shop? Do you?

Looking for new manufacturing recruitment strategies? Learn how machinist apprenticeship programs can help the skills gap.

Messaging That Will Resonate with Recruits

I propose that one of the better ways to study and refine our message is by looking at how you got into the industry. Not to scare anyone, but we might have to get personal. Did you grow up knowing what a lathe was and how to use it? Or were you like me and had no idea what an end mill was or that they even existed until you fell into an opportunity to see a milling machine in action?

Once you learned about the industry, what kept you here and motivated you to achieve the heights you attained? Is the message of “It’s Not Dirty” becoming weaker as you backtrack your own path?

These won’t be the only messages we should use, but to get the conversation going, here are four areas we could focus on:

Message No. 1: Come for the Adrenaline and the Challenge 

How much does adrenaline play into our trade? How about the machinist making that very expensive part? They have created, read, edited, reread and then double-checked the program on their machine. They have double-checked the workholding. They’ve made sure the coolant is on. They’ve double- and triple-checked the speeds and feeds of their carefully selected and prepared cutting tools. 

And then they hit the green button (with their other hand on the red button). Isn’t that the same feeling you got when you stepped up to bat? How about when you try to hit a putt?

What about the adrenaline that a job shop owner feels when he decides to build that much-needed new building? Buy that new turn-mill center? Submit that quote, which if won, will change the future of the company and the lives of everyone who works there?

How can we use the message of challenge, overcoming adversity and, yes, adrenaline in our recruiting efforts?

Message No. 2: We Welcome Would-Be Engineers

What do we tell the person who is interested in becoming an engineer or obtaining a college degree? Do we say, “Good luck to you. Wish we could help, but we are looking for people who will retire with our company.”

What if we step back a little and say: If every engineer spent some time in the shop before becoming an engineer, the entire manufacturing ecosystem would become better.

What if we tell that prospective college student something like, “Come on in with your mechanical aptitudes and excellent STEM skill set and learn how to become a machinist. You’ll spend a year at a trade school. You’ll work your way through college with a well-paying job. Maybe most importantly, the practical knowledge you’ll gain in a machine shop will give you an excellent foundation about how almost everything mechanical works. If you end up liking engineering, fair. If you actually learn to love machining, well hallelujah, we’ll be glad to have you.”

Message No. 3: The Dollars Make Sense

We can dance around it all we want, but money is a primary motivator in the career paths that people decide to take. The message here is that those machinists in the top 5 percent really get it and make $100,000 plus. 

Is that what the starting wage is for a new recruit? Of course not. The top percenters have gotten there after several years of hard work, training and development.

In our recruiting efforts, should we start by talking about $12 per hour or $100,000? Probably both. We definitely need to put forward an honest but clear path that someone can take to get from that $12 hourly wage to a $100,000 salary.

Inaction Is Not an Option

The way we choose to address this problem will and should be unique. Whatever we do, we must choose to act. This problem is not going to solve itself. The demographics of our society and the fierce competition from other industries for people with the same skill sets will see to that.

We need to reflect on our messaging and turn it back on ourselves. Would it work on you? Would it work on our kids? If it won’t, then we need to really understand this problem and get to work on practical solutions. Don’t think you can do it? I totally disagree. 

There is no industry more adept at solving complex problems than the machining industry. If we even began to discuss the complicated environment that we live in every day, this article would grow into a full-length book. 

Will we need to think differently than we do when we’re figuring out how to cut cycle time in half? Of course. This is a human issue with human implications and human outcomes.

We need to reflect on our message. We need to personalize the message. Each and every one of us needs to develop our own message and become an ambassador of the trade.

Let’s talk more about how we can become machining ambassadors and help encourage people to join our industry. Follow Broc on Forums right here.

Talk to Us!

This article hits the issue on the head! Machining is a wonderful, highly under-rated career. Shops need to do a better job of marketing themselves as more than just "not dirty". 


Thanks for visiting Better MRO Maddie


Thanks Maddie! We would love to hear more about what you think and invite you to join the comversation going on now in our forums:


This is a great "call to arms" for an industry that is in a workforce shortage crisis. This narative needs to generate action on each of our parts to get the word out and change the public's perception of a very rewarding career. 


Thanks for sharing your feedback Matt


We agree, Matt! We'd love to get some more conversation going around this subject. The author of this article is participating in an open discussing over on our forums, we invite you to come check it out and join in!


Great article.  We need to "sell the sizzle" of manufacturing trades as a whole, and as a stackable, and desired, pathway for engineers. 


We couldn't have said it better.


We're in absolute agreement, Roger. We'd love to hear more about your take on the "sizzle". The author of this article is participating in an open conversation over on our forums, come join in and share your thoughts!


 I've been a moldmaker for 45 years. I own my own shop. This is a great career, but, we need to find a way to stop our Plastics industry from shipping our work off shore. My shop has gone from 11 to 9 to 6 to 3 guys over the last twenty years. Plastic molders continue to send our work off shore.  


Thank you for commenting, Robert. There's definitely challenges out there in the industry. The author of this article is participating in an open discussion about the subject on our forums, please feel free to come and share more of your thoughts with him:


Super article.  I run a business that restores components for classic vehicles. The work is basically the saving of pieces of history.  It requires many skill set levels and a great deal of precision.  It's gratifying and fulfilling.  We need many new faces in these jobs to assure theiir survival. Whether or not it gets our hands dirty!!


Thank you Hal! That is a fascinating trade in the industry, and the preservation of history is certainly a worthy effort. We would actually love to hear more about what you do, if you ever felt like sharing on our forum! 


I graduated from a vocational program in 2003 and went right to work as an apprentice Tool & Diemaker. I spent 15 years at a company working up to moving into our engineering  department. I am now a second year teacher at the very same vocational high school that I graduated from. What I see as an all too common theme is students exploring our state of the art shop saying that HVAC, Electrician, and Plumbers are the way to go because of money. Today a newer challenge we are seeing hit us directly, where a new student came in with a shop change request form. I always encourage students to do what they enjoy and can see themselves doing for the rest of their lives. When I asked what the reasoning for this decisin was, it turned out to be parents telling the student to change because " Robots are replacing machinists". This is a message we need to tackle in a hurry. I hear it more and more where students like the work but they are hearing robots are taking our jobs away. No matter what you say they already have the thought in their heads. Is anyone else seeing this trend of robotics taking over our jobs, scaring people away from the trade?


Check out the Instagram handle ORHSMET and YouTube channel. The stars aligned for me and I was able to make my transition to become a high school Career Technical Education teacher. I hold a BS in Manufacturing Engineering from Cal Poly SLO and my journey was not a straight line to get to where I am now. I had the fortunate influence to have had a grandfather who had been a tool and die maker; I worked with him in his shop from the age of 4 until I went off to college. My start was in a dingy job shop, but like you said I didn't care about the dirt and the grime because I knew machining and manufacturing as a whole was where my passion and future would take me. I happend to think the dirt, grime sweat and sometimes blood on my hands was a physical reminder of the fact I was doing tangible good work. I a completely odd duck because I was aware of the looming gap the industry was going to be experiencing by the time I was only 16 in the late nineties, thanks to my grandfather and my exposure to working in that dingy shop. I knew that it was going to be possibly hard going, but that my foundational skills were going to be in really high demand...and now here I am. It has been hard going, especially now that I have made the most crucial change to formally be an educator to try and reach kids that were like me as early as I can catch them. I'm only 4 years into it and have a long way to go to reach the full potential of what I think I can provide this highly needed next generation of problem- solvers. My sales pitch is to get them out and working and to appreciate their own skills and abilities and that these skills are valuable, exciting and engaging. I could also write a book on the subject and perhaps someday will, but follow what is going on if you want to watch the story unfold. I too have many ideas to help ease the problem, though there is no simple one step cure to these sorts of complex people problems, it is going to take a lot of long term commitment, understanding and persistence. Though just know I'm here and I'm working on it.


Thanks for sharing your experience. There is a conversation going on with the author of this article and others on our forum if you want to share more on this topic.


Working for 40 years as a manual machinist ,all i see is workers that should be learning theirs trades are more into cell phones all day.listening to music,you tube etc;they do not know the anything about hard backbreaking work.the first thing i say when i wake up in the morning is shit.imagine the pain on my body.nice house nice cars,good life.good heath. I hope someone has the answer for the skills gap problem


Thanks for visiting Better MRO and sharing your thoughts. If you'd like to continue the conversation, it's happening now on our Forum. There are other topics there too where you can share what you've learned over the last 40 years.


Our veteran non-profit has been working to address this since 2008. Every 4 months, we train transitioning military and veterans in CNC Machining and welding, w/national credentials (NIMS, Solidworks, Mastercam, AWS). Our job placement rate is 95% and the average starting 1st year compensation of our graduates, nationwide, is $60K. Please contact me if you're an employer.

Steve Warner, Outreach Specialist, Workshops for Warriors

619 550 1620

Workshops for Warriors (WFW), is a state-licensed, board governed, fully audited, 501(c)(3) nonprofit school founded in 2008. The mission of Workshops for Warriors is to provide a nationally scalable and repeatable model for quality training, accredited STEM educational programs, and opportunities to earn third party nationally recognized credentials to enable Veterans, transitioning service members, and other students to be successfully trained and placed in their chosen advanced manufacturing career field.

WFW is able to provide Veterans with training on cutting edge technology and teaches and certifies to the nationally recognized standards of The American Welding Society, National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), Mastercam University, and SolidWorks which are portable and stackable credentials.  


A 95% placement rate is fantastic! Thanks for sharing your passion on your work and this topic. 


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