The factory floor of Trace Die Cast in Bowling Green is loud—so loud, workers and visitors wear ear plugs anytime they’re on the premises. This is the sort of place that provides the blue collar manufacturing jobs that we keep hearing are in such short supply these days.
Trace Die Cast employs over 500 people, and wants to employ more. But Trace President Chris Guthrie says he's having a hard time filling positions because he can’t find workers who have the computer and technical skills needed for today’s manufacturing jobs.
“Anywhere from basic maintenance, working on electrical systems, hydraulic systems, and basic computer circuits, to more elaborate things where we’re dealing with sensors and robotics," says Guthrie.
Guthrie says this is an extremely unusual time for American manufacturers. On one hand, many were forced to close down because of the economic buzzsaw that’s ripped through the country, starting in 2008.
But companies that survived the downtown now have unprecedented opportunities to shine.
“A lot of our competitors did not survive, so coming out of this we have opportunities to grow rapidly, because there are less suppliers," says Guthrie. "The problem is being able to supply a skilled workforce that can make and support equipment and the quality requirements that the automotive industry demands.”
Simply put, Trace Die Cast needs more workers like 23 year old Ernesto Alfaro.
Alfaro is a native of El Salvador who graduated from Warren Central High School. After school, he found work at Trace Die Cast, and enrolled at Bowling Green Technical College.
Alfaro worked his way up the chain and became a process technician, working with machines that operate robotic tools via programmed commands.
“We also have to change tools, when machines break down we have to fix them. We fix hydraulics, pneumatics…there’s a lot of computers involved in it," says Alfaro.
He says of all the advanced computer skills he uses at his job at Trace Die Cast, virtually all were learned at Bowling Green Technical College. That school's President and CEO, Nathan Hodges, says Bowling Green Tech is willing to go a company’s facility and train workers on a specific new piece of equipment.
“Then, in case the equipment changes next year or two years down the road, and if they have to make some adjustment internal to that piece of equipment, if the company will share that digital information with us, we can design for them, specifically, a training program that incorporates that technology," says Hodges.
Walking around Trace Die Cast, one can’t help but notice the amount of work being done by automation. Vice President of Facilities, Kent Guthrie, says it’s true factories like his don’t employ the sheer number of workers today that they would have 20 to 30 years ago.
But, he adds, that doesn’t mean that machines are the enemy of human workers.
“In my opinion, automation changes the focus of the operator," says Guthrie. "So I’m not worried about picking up aluminum from point A, and moving it to point B. The robot takes care of that. So now the operator can worry about whether the machine is doing its job the right way, if it’s running at the proper cycle time, if the right gaging has been done so that the part is correct.”
Kent Guthrie says there are manufacturing jobs to be had in America. But increasingly, those jobs are for workers with the technical and computer skills necessary to run the machines that do most of the dirty work.
Finding and training those workers appears to be one of the great challenges facing the US as it seeks to retool its manufacturing base.