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Skilled Labor Hard to Find
Tool-and-die workers are in great demand


By Tammy Uyetake
Medill News Service
Daily Herald

Chicago-area machine manufacturers are faced with two problems: a recession and, ironically, a lack of skilled workers. It's harder to turn a mechanically inclined kid into a skilled machine maker than it once was, said Jim Hommer Sr., president of Arlington Heights-based Hommer Tool & Manufacturing Inc.

"Today there is a great demand for logical thinking and computerization; the mechanical part is diminished," he said.

Paul Episcopo learned the skills needed in the tool-and-die industry through a training program run by the Tooling & Manufacturing Association, an industry group based in Park Ridge. He works in Arlington Heights.

According to a November survey by the National Association of Manufacturers and Andersen LLP, the professional service firm, 80 percent of manufacturing companies face a moderate to severe shortage of qualified applicants.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed said work force shortages range from equipment operators and machinists to technicians and engineers. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 32,611 machinists, tool-and-die makers, mold makers, machinists and precision metalworkers will be needed in Illinois between the years 2000 and 2005.

"Companies like Mr. Hommer's need a significant number of skilled technicians - people who are really good at doing technology," said Dr. Keith McKee, director of Manufacturing Technology and Management Programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "That is a problem that has and will continue to hurt the industry." Jim Hommer decried the shortage of skilled workers as "the death of manufacturing in this country." He said sometimes he puts employees without even a high school degree to work with expensive equipment because he has no option. With a work force of 35, Hommer is looking for four precision machinists.

Binder Tool Inc. President Hans Bittenbinder said it's so hard to get skilled employees he hasn't let people go even though business is down, and he offers better insurance coverage than competitors to keep the employees he has. He employs six tool-and-die makers who have worked for him for the past 11 to 18 years at his Franklin Park plant.

The Tooling & Manufacturing Association in Park Ridge works with employers to train employees in the scarce skills. Its four-year program allows students to learn mold making, tool and die making and machining at three Chicago campuses while working. "It's the only program like it in the Chicago area," said Bethany Pahl, manager of education partnerships and communications.

Employers usually pay for 95 percent of the tuition, which amounts to about $600 a year. The rest is subsidized through TMA revenues from membership dues. Currently, 272 students from 177 companies are enrolled in the program, down from 600 students five years ago because of the recession. "Unfortunately, you can't train a person in three, six months, or a year," said Jim Baumbich, an independent manufacturing consultant. "That means when things get busy again, we're really hurting because...it's such a long training period."

Paul Episcopo, a graduate of the program, works for Hommer Tool & Manufacturing. "A lot of companies recognize TMA. It's like having a bachelor's or associate's degree in manufacturing," he said.

The program has about a 70 percent completion rate and has been in existence since 1934. Hommer said he has been working with TMA for the past 10 to 15 years and is himself a product of the program. He estimates about 20 to 25 people have worked for him while going through the apprenticeship program, and he has a 25 percent retention rate. "I can see the benefits," Hommer said. "We're getting a much higher caliber of employees."

For more information contact Susan Menn (Marketing Manager) at Hommer Tool & Manufacturing, Inc. (Arlington Heights) at 847-394-3355.

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