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CNC Training Academy helps fill Michigan Professional Trades Talent Pipeline

On any given day inside Epic Machine’s high-tech manufacturing facility, Pete Jamieson has his hands full making high-precision machined parts that are shipped to customers in 29 states and 12 countries for use in everyday products.

He and his colleagues produce the rollers used in production of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal. Ever drink from a McDonald’s cup? Epic makes vacuum molds that generate the 5 million lids for McDonald’s beverages sold annually.

Their handcrafted expertise is also used in products for General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Mercury Marine, John Deere, Navistar, Briggs & Stratton and more than 200 other customers that make products ranging from medical equipment and solar energy parts to tooling components for fire hydrants and manhole covers.

It’s a labor of love, Jamieson said.

“I’ve been here three years and it’s just awesome – I have a great career,” said the Byron native, whose twin brother, Tom, works alongside him at Epic Machine’s nondescript, 38,000-square-foot factory just east of U.S. 23 between Ann Arbor and Flint in southern Genesee County.

“To me, the finesse it takes to make a great-looking part for the customer is an art.”

“Best decision ever”

Jamieson didn’t envision himself becoming a computer numerical control (CNC) operator after successfully completing eight years of infantry service in the U.S. Army, where he enlisted upon high school graduation in 2007.

He initially considered a criminal justice career or training as a gunsmith after leaving the military, but the desire to work with his hands sparked his pursuit of a CNC career.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but then I Googled nearby CNC places and Epic Machine’s Training Academy popped up – the rest is history,” Jamieson said with a laugh. “Best decision I ever made.”

An epic opportunity

Epic Machine has churned out high-precision machined components since 1979. In 2013, CEO Mike Parker recognized that the region’s labor market no longer offered enough skilled CNC workers to meet company demands.

“When I approached the high schools (educators) and asked them to send a class over to us and let us show them what machinery does today, I couldn’t get schools to bring people in,” Parker recalled. “The misnomer is still out there that manufacturing is a dirty, grimy place. Our goal became figuring out how to bring skilled, trained tradespeople back into Michigan’s manufacturing industry.”

Parker’s solution was to found Epic CNC Training Academy – one of Michigan’s first small-scale, in-house re-education and training programs. Most applicants typically are in their mid-to-late 20s and are already working as bartenders or window installers, for example, but are seeking new opportunities in advanced manufacturing.

“We focus on quality over quantity in our intensive, hands-on training,” said academy director Melinda Keway. “It’s a 40-hour week for our students. They are totally immersed in learning computer-operated equipment. When a student is done with the session, he or she will be proficient and confident in their skills and will be ready to meet the needs of an employer as an entry-level skilled tradesperson.”

Manufacturing success

Academy applicants, who pay tuition of $9,600, can enroll in one of four eight-week sessions per year. Enrollment is limited to four students per session to ensure maximum hands-on learning with one-on-one instruction.

“Our academy is a little bit different from your traditional community colleges or universities as far as CNC goes, which are really good if you need a broad (education),” Keway said. “Going the traditional route is great for people who think they may be interested in this industry but don’t know where they want to be in it, so they learn a little bit of everything.

“But the problem is employers like us, we are needing a lathe person, or specifically a mill person, and so we opened a training academy that’s very pointed,” Keway added. “You learn one or the other. You don’t learn both. That way, after eight weeks, you walk out and you’re proficient in either lathe or mill.”

Epic Academy students master technical math skills, blueprint reading, measuring equipment, machining, milling, numerical code programming, mastercam (where students learn computer-aided design programs that assist in the production of part blueprints) and other keys essential to career success, such as time management.

Epic’s program boasts 100% job placement, through becoming employed either by Epic or at peer companies that have come to rely on the academy’s graduates to fill their talent needs, such as Moeller Precision Tool in Wixom, Ultra-Dex in Flushing and Michigan Deburring Tool in Brighton, Keway noted.

“They’re first in line to get students from our academy,” Keway said. “Some of them already hired Epic students and have said, ‘Whatever you’ve got, give them to me.’”

Michigan Deburring president Jim Robinson was so impressed by Epic’s training methods that he sent his two sons to the academy, said Brandon Dix, Deburring’s plant manager.

“Their graduates come out with a knowledge of how machines operate, how to read blueprints and use CNC equipment,” Dix said. “They (Epic) have a really good program.”

Michigan’s talent crunch

Parker’s decision to launch Epic Academy came while Michigan was arriving at a talent pipeline crossroads.

Employers still can’t fill jobs because of an aging workforce that is retiring at a faster pace than they can find sufficiently skilled replacements. While CNBC recently declared Michigan a Top 10 State for Winning the War on Talent in its America’s Top States for Business study, leaders in business, education and government agree much more work remains to satisfy Michigan employers’ hiring needs and keep local economies moving forward.

Projections show Michigan will experience a Professional Trades workforce gap of more than 811,000 openings by 2024 due to retiring baby boomers and the emergence of new technologies.

At the same time, appreciation of the rewards that can come from apprenticeships and Professional Trades is lagging in Michigan. At least half of Michigan’s high school students, young adults and parents lack knowledge about the value and benefits apprenticeships offer, with only 13% of high school students considering apprenticeships a good career path option, according to a 2018 statewide survey commissioned by the Talent and Economic Development Department of Michigan (Ted).

Choosing Professional Trades

Efforts by Parker and Epic Machine to raise awareness and promote the merits of Professional Trades align with the vision unveiled by Ted for attracting talent to jobs and careers in Michigan.

Going PRO is Ted’s groundbreaking campaign to elevate the perception of Professional Trades and showcase numerous high-paying, high-demand career options, from welders, millwrights and HVAC mechanics to massage therapists, medical sonographers and web developers.

Average annual wages for full-time workers in Professional Trades is a healthy $51,000, according to the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information & Strategic Initiatives.

“If you’re good at math and mechanically inclined, this might be a good fit for you,” Keway said. “You also must be 18 years old or older. The majority of our students are in their mid-20s and have come to us after trying a different career path and realizing they want to do something different with their lives.”

Finding qualified new talent remains a challenge, said Mark Dyer, an Epic instructor and journeyman tool and die maker.

Epic Machine has gained approval to use the new Forever GI Bill, which lets military veterans such as Jamieson use federal benefits for technology courses through noncollege providers.

The company is also represented on the advisory boards of Mott Community College, Oakland Community College, Baker College and the Genesee Intermediate School District’s Genesee Career Institute.

Still, most applicant leads come through word-of-mouth from parents, grandparents and educators, some of whom may not yet appreciate that alternatives exist to career success beyond a four-year college degree.

“When we go to speak at schools on career days, we tell students and parents there’s more to manufacturing than an automobile,” Dyer said.

“Our message about getting into these industries young is really important, because if you’re 55 years old and thinking, ‘Well, I think I want to be a machinist,” there just isn’t enough time for you,” he said. “You need to get in this early on, so by the time you’re 55 years old, you’re the genius. You know the ins and outs and everything about it.”

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Tom Shaw

Technical Education Post, Online Publisher

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