Mackenzee Slatten entered cosmetology school, became a hairdresser and got a job at an Akron-area salon. Then, just a few months ago, Laurie Norval, founder and director of the Akron CNC Training Center in Tallmadge, walked into the salon and became her client.
They talked as Slatten worked on Norval’s hair. At the end of the session, Norval had a new hairdo. And Slatten was started on a new career path that offered a promise of better pay and benefits.
“[Norval] told me about the school,” Slatten said. “I thought about it and took the leap.
“She talked with her boyfriend and her father, both of whom are machinists. Then Slatten signed up at the Akron CNC Training Center. She will soon join the industry making such things as parts and tools out of solid pieces of metal using sophisticated computer numerically controlled, or CNC, technology. The machinists, or operators, program the specialized machines to cut and shape steel, titanium and other metals into precise shapes.
CNC training program is four months long
The training center is trying to turn out enough graduates through its four-month-long programs to meet strong local demand for machinists and tool-and-die makers, said Norval. She estimates there are about 1,100 CNC machining shops within an hour’s drive from the school. The school itself is located within a large machine shop, Lehner Screw Machine, owned by contract manufacturer OGS Industries, on the Akron-Tallmadge line.
The school aims to teach people the basics so that they can get their first skilled labor job in the industry, Norval said. Most students live in the Greater Akron area.
“More and more companies are having us train their employees,” she said. “They can’t find workers. I say, do you have anyone who shows up and has a good work ethic? … Why not train the [entry level] ones you have?”
Machine shops, deemed essential businesses, never stopped working during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norval said. But machine shops that are dealing with an aging workforce in many cases are also finding it hard to find new employees, she said.
“It’s a huge struggle,” Norval said.
No experience necessary to attend Akron CNC Training Center
The Akron CNC Training Center, a partner with the Cleveland Industrial Training Center, dedicates itself to training people who have no to limited machine shop experience. Norval and her machinist business owner father, Lee Combs, founded the Summit County school about 15 years ago.
Students have the option of taking morning classes from 8 a.m. to noon, or evening classes 5 p.m. to 9 p.m, Monday through Thursday. Cost is $5,400, with many people eligible for federal and state job training funds. Some have their employers pay for the program, Norval said. There are typically 20 students between the day and night classes, she said.
“We have over 1,000 graduates” over the 15-year-period, Norval said. Students come in with all kinds of backgrounds, she said. She recalled one person was an accountant, with others ages 50 and up looking for retraining. Younger people like Mackenzee Slatten who work in the service industry often find that being a machinist pays more money and provides more benefits than their initial career path, she said.
Another current student, Girard resident Amie Altaffer, joined an Akron-area machine shop a little more than a year ago as a driver.
“It’s a small shop,” Altaffer said. “I had no idea what a machine shop did.”
But she learned. And then the shop management wanted to know if she was interested in becoming a machinist. She said yes and enrolled in the school with her employer as sponsor.
Classroom and practical experience
Students spend time in class learning basics, including math, machine tool safety, quality control and computer-aided design and manufacturing, and have lab days when they learn how to operate the kind of machines they eventually will be working on, Norval said. Graduates come out with basic skills and then get on-the-job experience and training with their employers, she said.
“We always trained some [current] employees,” Norval said. With machine shops having a difficult time finding new workers, there has been an increase the last year with them enrolling non-machinist employees in the school, she said.
Demand for machinists and tool-and-die makers is expected to remain strong, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2020, the last year figures were available, there were 425,300 jobs in the nation, with expected job growth of 7% annually through 2020.
The industry jobs typically pay well. The national median pay in 2020 was $47,040 per year, or nearly $23 an hour.
Pay can hit $60,000 in a short time
It’s not unusual for a local CNC operator with four years experience to make $60,000 a year – more with overtime, said Chris Conrad, plant manager for the OGS facility where the CNC school is located. (Conrad is also an instructor at the school.) New graduates will typically start at $20 an hour, he said, and will be working on machines that cost anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million, he said.
“You have a good job forever,” he said. “That demand is going to increase.”
The demand is definitely there at the OGS/Lehner Screw facility, he said.
“I have eight mills on the floor with three guys,” Conrad said. “I need more people.”
The company’s goal is to become the premier shop of its kind in the area, serving a wide range of industries from aerospace to military to automotive and more, he said. To do that, they have been upgrading with the latest available CNC machines. But they still need more people to operate them, he said.
Ideally, they would have one person per machine, Conrad said.
“Everybody is looking for people,” he said.
Tom Bader, vice president of family owned OGS Industries, likewise acknowledged the hiring crunch. OGS has been expanding, buying and combining companies, he said. (OGS started out 60 years ago as a much smaller company, Ohio Gasket and Shim Co.)
“I certainly have more machines than I have labor,” Bader said. “If you were smart, you’d go into tool-and-die making.”
OGS has a great relationship with the Akron CNC school, he said.
“She’ll train some of our rookie employees,” Bader said. “It works out real well.”
Akron CNC Training Center is a ‘launching pad’
Norval said working in the machining industry has benefits over other industry jobs. Compared to some service jobs, people in the machinist trade are treated with more respect and have better benefits, including retirement plans, she said.
“It’s lifelong proficiency. It’s year-round, it’s not seasonal,” Norval said. “A really good paying job. They’re sustainable jobs for everybody.”
Akron CNC is not a “master’s degree,” Norval said. “It’s a launching pad.”