According to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. will see a projected 44,100 job openings for machinists and tool and die makers each year, on average, through 2031. This demand comes at a time when manufacturers are reporting that finding skilled talent is harder than ever, and the National Association of Manufacturers is predicting that a manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled positions by 2030.

A quick Google search for “machinist jobs Arizona” returns hundreds of postings for everything from entry-level apprentices to experienced CNC programmers, and Arizona manufacturers interviewed by CompanyWeek have recounted their own hiring challenges including “positions open for months on end” and a need for “people who are skilled operators” with an understanding of new technology.

It’s definitely a problem that needs solving if growth in U.S. manufacturing — including that in AZ — is to continue. The only question is how.

For the Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners, a Tucson-area group of several dozen manufacturing leaders, the answer to building the next generation of manufacturers may be as simple as introducing more young people to opportunities within the industry through an internship and scholarship program.

CompanyWeek recently spoke with Don Theriault, SAMP’s president, to learn more.

CompanyWeek: What inspired you and the other manufacturers in SAMP to create the organization?

Don Theriault: [The idea for the] Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners first started with a meeting that the county had with some manufacturers [and educators] in Tucson.

All the universities and community colleges said, ‘We have to train new engineers.’ Then one of the partners, the president of Sargent Controls here in town, stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute. We can have all the engineers in the world, but if we don’t have machinists and manufacturing people, we can’t build [what they design]. Our real shortage is machinists and manufacturing people, not just engineers.’

From there, the county put out a survey to all the manufacturers in Tucson to see if they were really having trouble finding machinists. Well, most of us said yes. And from that, we had a group meeting and formed the Southern Arizona Manufacturing Partners. Since its inception, I’ve been president of the partnership. It’s not really a membership, but more of a handshake agreement to participate in recruiting, promoting manufacturing, and to help train new machinists.

CW: How did SAMP get the Tucson community’s educators involved in your mission to produce a highly trained workforce to fill area manufacturing jobs?

DT: [After launching SAMP] we started meeting with the local high schools. Two of the high schools in town had [manufacturing] programs. One was outdated by about 40 years, the machines they were teaching on and all that. The other was a brand-new program, so they didn’t really know what they were doing yet. [SAMP] helped both of them come up to the modern century. Now they’ve outfitted their schools with CNC equipment and CAD equipment. They’re teaching CAD/CAM and CNC programming and CNC operators.

Then we got the community college involved because they were also 30 to 40 years behind on the technology they had on the floor. It’s a little bit harder to make changes in a college. But once we started them on the path of change, they got together with the high schools and put together programs where high school students could get dual enrollment in the community college. [This means] the students don’t have to repeat those classes when they get to community college. They also don’t have to pay tuition. They can either get NIMS certifications, which would equate to two dual enrollment credits, or they can test out of these classes and get their credits.

CW: We recently interviewed Greg Wilson, Dean of Applied Technology at Pima Community College, about the school’s investments in advanced manufacturing education. It’s pretty impressive what they’re doing to upgrade their facilities.

DT: Yes, Pima Community College has expanded their advanced manufacturing program and has invested somewhere around $25 million in buildings and equipment. It’s an amazing facility they’re putting together. I believe it’s scheduled to open next year.

CW: How does SAMP’s internship program fit into the educator-manufacturer partnerships the organization has developed?

DT: During COVID, [the internship program] kind of came to a halt because we really didn’t have a lot of students physically in schools. Tucson High actually lost their instructor during that time, and I think they’re still actively looking for a new one. Desert View High School
has a lot of students in their program. We probably get 10 student interns a year out of their program. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s better than zero. Over the course of eight years, we’ve probably had 150 students sign up for our internship model.

They get on-the-job training and on-the-job experience for eight weeks [with a manufacturer who is part of SAMP] and then can decide if they want to continue on with this profession. Some bail out and go somewhere else. Some decide to go on. If they decide to go on, they’re sponsored for paid tuition. They’re three classes short of an associate degree when they complete the full 18-month program. And once they’re out of that, they’re making upwards of $18 an hour, depending on the individual.

At my shop, ITDE, I’ve had probably 10 people that started working for me that way. Of that 10, three or four of them are really top-rated people. In four or five years, they’ll be on the top pay scale, and they’ve been [machinists] for less than seven years.

CW: Why do you and the other manufacturers in SAMP believe these internships are important to developing a new generation of machinists?

DT: An internship gives [students] exposure to manufacturing, for one. It used to be, back in the day, that high schools offered different trade experiences like machine shop, welding, woodworking, things where someone could get their hands dirty a little bit. Nowadays, most kids don’t get that experience in high school unless they really seek it out. The internship gives these students a taste of what can be and what they can be good at. That’s really our vision, which has always been just to try to give these young adults — and even middle-aged people if they want to change professions — a taste of what manufacturing is about. It’s a great profession, and you can make a lot of money doing it and have a great life.

Angela Rose is Executive Editor of CompanyWeek. Email her at arose@companyweek.com.

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