The National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA) is a nationwide organization with over 1,400 members across nearly 35 chapters around the United States. Serving as the chief voice and catalyst for tooling and machining-based manufacturers with regards to industry advocacy, development, and education, we sit down with Dave Tilstone, President of NTMA, to talk about the present and future state of one of the nation’s most critical industrial sectors, and expand upon the strategies they’re taking to fill the fast-growing job openings available in tooling and machining as an older generation retires off and a younger, somewhat reluctant one emerges to take its place.

Tooling and machining are utilized in just about every major industry, whether its here in the United States, or elsewhere around the globe. But what exactly is tooling and machining? A quick internet search will tell you that those carrying out such services in a manufacturing company are typically highly skilled artisans who make everything from jigs, fixtures, dies and molds, to machine tools, cutting tools, gauges, and many others that are ultimately utilized in a manufacturing process. It’s an area that is essentially the foundation of successful manufacturing, a skilled service that ultimately defines the end product.

The NTMA oversees over 1,400 companies in the business of tooling and machining, accounting for 38,000 employees whose work combines to generate more than $40 billion in sales. In addition to “If we’re looking at the current state of tooling and machining in the United States, it’s pretty positive overall, because while there certainly have been challenges in the energy sectors with the price of oil dropping so low, others like automotive, aerospace, and medical devices have sprung up in manufacturing activity in 2015,” says Tilstone, adding, “and we’re looking at even better levels in 2016 as inventory levels start to come down.”

And yet, despite the rosy outlook and the sector’s inherent critical and wide-ranging nature of services, tooling and machining companies in this country are becoming increasingly threatened as each year passes, facing down a skills gap as an aging workforce begins to retire off in large numbers. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if manufacturing in general didn’t itself suffer from a serious issue of identity in the nation’s eyes, specifically those of the younger generation.

“The fact of the matter is that tooling and machining is facing a skills gap issue that could seriously hinder the sector’s progress in the future,” says Tilstone adding, that, “In response, the NTMA has made workforce development one of its central focuses in terms of our advocacy efforts.” And he’s not just talking about speaking with lawmakers on Capitol Hill through their One Voice initiative, but rather fostering educational programs and sending manufacturers out in the field to classrooms to better educate the youth on what modern manufacturing is, and why it’s as innovative and rewarding as any other profession.

According to Governing.com, the median age for a worker in a machine shop in the United States is 46.3 years old, with 52.7 percent of the entire workforce over the age of 45, so the issue is one fast approaching. Adding to this were Tim Cook’s words in a 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose this past December, where the Apple CEO told the host about how his decision to manufacture his company’s products in China largely stemmed from his view that there simply aren’t enough tool and die manufacturers in the United States to carry out the work. “You can take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in a room that we’re currently sitting in. In China, you would have to have multiple football fields,” he said.

His words are a bit of an oversimplification of what the reality actually is, but it does further shed light on a real problem facing America’s manufacturing future, if not its present. And while Cook’s words and the alarming average age statistics in manufacturing aren’t anything new to ears of Tilstone and NTMA’s member companies, they are certainly taking the situation seriously and are acting aggressively to meet the challenge head on.

“The NTMA offers a number of educational resources on our website, like our innovative NTMA-U program, that allows companies to train their current employees via online, industry-specific courses so that they can maintain their work schedule while evolving the skills of their valued employees who can in turn take on more critical duties.”

Then there’s the National Robotics League, a program founded by the NTMA that brings high school students together to design and build remote-controlled robots to face-off in a gladiator style competition. If you find yourself intrigued by that previous sentence, know that you’re not alone, as the program has grown to become a nationwide annual event where students from different regions around the country compete in a yearly competition held in May for a top prize. “The National Robotics League has been a huge success for us in terms of advocating a clearer picture of what manufacturing really is to these high school students.”

In fact, Tilstone recalls from last year’s competition a girl who approached him at the end of the competition to express her newfound interest in a career in manufacturing. “This girl was competing on an all-girls team and was planning on attending MIT via a full-scholarship in the fall,” he says, adding, “she came up to me on her own at the end of the competition and said the experience had changed her life.”

He says that when pressing her as to just exactly what that meant, she replied that she had thought manufacturing was a dirty, mundane profession meant for those unable to attend college, but quickly found out that it was quite the opposite. “She said she was so energized by the experience that she wanted to focus on a career in manufacturing, and as the rest of her team came up and spoke with me, they echoed much of the same, which was very encouraging to hear.”

It’s an encouraging example indeed, and offers a window into the kind of action that needs to happen for manufacturing, including tooling and machining, to smoothly transition in the future. “We need the best and brightest young individuals to lead the way in manufacturing, because at the end of the day it’s an innovative industry filled with cutting-edge technology and solutions,” he says, adding, “But we’re excited about our organization’s role in assisting such, and we will continue to offer as many resources as possible to current and would-be manufacturers, because that’s NTMA’s and it’s members passion and focus.”

About the National Tooling and Machining Association
As the national representative of the precision custom manufacturing industry, the NTMA oversees over 1,400 members across 35 chapters whose businesses account for more than $40 billion in sales. For more information on the NTMA and its many resources, visit http://www.ntma.org/. The National Tooling and Machining Foundation (NTMF) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit designed to fund manufacturing education—building skills while increasing awareness.

Dave Tilstone is the President of the National Tooling and Machining Association which consists of nearly 1400 members who, in the aggregate, represent more than $40 billion in sales in US precision custom manufacturing. The NTMA membership is comprised primarily of small to mid-sized, privately owned manufacturers. NTMA members touch many parts of the U.S. economy including aerospace, automotive, medical, and oil and gas. NTMA has been at the forefront of addressing skilled labor issues for American manufacturers, and has identified workforce development as one of its core organizational initiatives. Its organizational efforts to promote manufacturing careers include the National Robotics League, which is a STEM program that forges partnerships among students of all levels, educators, and NTMA member companies and an on-line apprenticeship program entitled NTMA-U.

Aside from his role with the NTMA, Mr. Tilstone is a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pittsburgh. Mr. Tilstone has also served as an ISTMA Board member since 2010 and became the ISTMA World president at the ISTMA World Conference held in March 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. His prior roles include executive leadership positions at Kennametal, a leading U.S. manufacturer of metal cutting products, as well as manufacturing focused consulting assignments.


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