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‘Mini-renaissance’ in manufacturing helps fuel demand for skilled workers

Dan Hurley operated a CNC lathe at Phillips Precision Inc., a Boylston company that makes plastic and metal products for various industries, last week.

Jackie Ricciardi for the Boston Globe

Dan Hurley operated a CNC lathe at Phillips Precision Inc., a Boylston company that makes plastic and metal products for various industries, last week.

Mike Cox was laid off last year from his longtime job as a pressman at a printing company near Worcester. Lacking a college degree and up-to-date manufacturing skills, he prepared himself for protracted  unemployment.

Then he was accepted into an intense eight-week training course for operating computerized manufacturing equipment known as “computer numerical control,” or CNC. Not long after completing the program, Cox landed a job at Phillips Precision Inc., a Boylston maker of plastic and metal products for food-service, medical-device, electronics, and other area firms.

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“I got a new job within only four months after getting laid off — and I wasn’t expecting that to happen,” said Cox, 48, of North Oxford. “It’s worked out well for me.”

It has worked out well for Cox and others partly because of two trends: a growing demand for CNC-certified machine operators and a push to train more workers to run increasingly sophisticated, computer-aided equipment used by many of today’s manufacturers.

“We’re seeing a constant demand for CNC-certified employees and we don’t see any let up in the near future,” said Jack Healy, director of operations at the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a Worcester nonprofit that runs programs to promote and sustain manufacturing.

The partnership, which receives funding from federal, state, and private sources, provided the 240 hours of free CNC training to Cox. Since starting the program in 2006, the partnership, which works with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has helped about 500 people gain CNC certification.

After decades of decline, economists and industry officials say there has been a “mini-renaissance” in the US manufacturing sector as companies use technology to become more efficient, productive, and competitive. That, in turn, has increased demand for well-trained workers comfortable with basic computer codes, mathematics, and sophisticated machinery.

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There are no estimates on how many CNC-certified workers are needed, but an aging manufacturing workforce and wave of baby boomer retirements in coming years is expected to increase demand. A recent Northeastern University report estimates that manufacturers will need to fill 100,000 jobs in Massachusetts alone over the coming decade, with many of those jobs in so-called advanced manufacturing that requires CNC certificates or other credentials.

Last year, the state Legislature appropriated $18.75 million to an Advanced Manufacturing Futures Fund to help firms and employees deal with technological changes requiring new training, equipment, and other assistance.

Community colleges and vocational high schools are ramping up efforts to teach and train people about CNC technologies. In particular, Springfield Technical Community College and Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester offer CNC courses, as well as manufacturing-technology degrees and certification programs.

Some private companies also offer programs. Four years ago, Woburn-based Custom Group created the Center for Manufacturing Technology to train workers in CNC equipment. Costing $7,000 for 320 hours spread over 16 weeks of classroom time and hands-on work, the program teaches traditional manufacturing skills as well as CNC operation.

To get CNC credentials, students must pass tests developed by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, a Virginia trade association, said Joanna Dowling, who co-owns Custom Group. The center trains about 60 workers a year, about 80 percent of whom find jobs in manufacturing , Dowling said.

“We initially started it for own selfish reasons: We were having a hard time finding trained, qualified workers for our machine shops,” Dowling said. “Now we’re training workers for ourselves and other manufacturers.”

The Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership offers about three CNC programs a year, for 12 students at a time, that help train unemployed workers and veterans, said Ted Bauer, manager of workforce development programs at the partnership. The partnership also runs separate CNC training programs for private companies’ workers.

The first two weeks are spent in the classroom, learning basic computer codes for CNC equipment and how the machines operate, said Bauer. Students then spend five weeks at Worcester Polytechnic Institute working on CNC equipment alongside instructors.

The final week is spent reviewing CNC lessons and preparing workers for getting jobs. About 90 percent of those with advanced CNC training land jobs after completing their program, said Bauer.

The pay for entry-level workers with minimal CNC training starts at about $16 an hour but can rise as high as $30 an hour for those with advanced CNC training and experience, industry officials say. The pay can rise above $30 an hour if an experienced worker is promoted to a foreman or supervisor. The majority of CNC-certified positions come with health care benefits.

Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., the Springfield firearms manufacturer, recently hired about 35 graduates from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, according to the group.

Cox worked for 22 years at his old printing job, before the company went out of business in 2012. Today, he is one of 12 employees at Phillips Precision Inc., serving as a shop machine operator.

He said he’s not making as much as he did as a pressman, but expressed confidence that with more experience and CNC knowledge, his pay will rise to its old level.

Catherine Phillips, who co-owns Phillips Precision with her husband, said they now have two employees trained through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

“We want manufacturing to be a career option again for more people, but we need to have the right type of workers,” said Phillips. “If you walk into most machine shops today and see workers who are worth their salt, you know they’ll have CNC training. It’s the only way to compete today.”

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.

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