by Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
MINNEAPOLIS - For decades, Mike Hummon, an unemployed substitute music teacher, was frustrated in his quest to become a school band director.
Now, he good-naturedly endures frustrations of a different sort as a 53-year-old student in an accelerated manufacturing class here. In the classroom one day recently, the tiny hole he punched in a small block of metal was a few ten-thousandths of an inch off center. Hummon accepted he'd have to start over and carve a new block.
"It's OK," he says. "It's just (a matter of ) getting a feel for how to use the machine."
He isn't just seeking a new career as an operator of computer-controlled factory machines. Hummon, a dishwasher, two social service workers and several laid-off manufacturing and construction workers are on the front line of a campaign to close a puzzling gap in the labor market that has many U.S. employers struggling to find skilled workers despite the 7.8% jobless rate.
They're among 64 students taking part in a new program at two Minnesota community colleges called Right Skills Now that trains them in just 16 to 18 weeks to run computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines. At graduation, they're virtually assured a job in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area at a starting wage of about $18 an hour after a six-week paid internship.
Experts say the program could serve as a national model for employers needing skilled workers yesterday and many jobless Americans unable to spend two years earning an associate degrees.
"We can't wait two years or four years," for students to graduate college, says Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries, a contract manufacturer in Burnsville, Minn., who promoted the idea for the program last year when she was unable to find seven CNC operators. "We need people now."
Graduates of the program at Dunwoody College of Technology, where Hummon is enrolled, and South Central College earn college credit and an industry certification that can help them land jobs anywhere in the USA. Tuition is $12,600, but many students get financial aid, says Debra Kerrigan, who oversees the Dunwoody program.
It's one of the early efforts to close the nation's much-bemoaned skills gap. Economists say many unemployed workers don't have the skills for new, highly technical jobs in manufacturing, health care, information technology and other fields - mismatches that keep unemployment higher than it should be in an economic recovery.
Last year, Miller, a member of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, approached the Manufacturing Institute, the industry's workforce training arm, and the two groups developed the fast-track program. The first session, at the Minnesota colleges, ended in late spring, with the vast majority of students landing jobs after graduating.
A Right Skills Now program recently began in Nevada, and one will soon launch in Michigan. The initiative is expected to spread across the country and graduate more than 100,000 the next few years as part of President Obama's goal of awarding manufacturing certifications to 500,000 community college students by 2016, says Jennifer McNelly, who heads the Manufacturing Institute. Courses in welding, production and other factory skills are also planned.
A pipeline of skilled factory workers is sorely needed, especially with Baby Boomers retiring. A year ago, 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs were unfilled, and 80% of manufacturers couldn't find proficient workers, according to a survey by the institute and Deloitte.
After shrinking by 2.3 million in the recession, manufacturing employment has grown by 500,000 since early 2010 on rising exports and a resurgent auto industry. But many former apparel and textile workers whose jobs were shipped overseas lack the skills to operate automated machines in expanding sectors such as autos, aerospace and medical devices.
So do substitute teachers and landscaping workers. At Dunwoody's lab one evening last month, about 20 unemployed and underemployed students in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s were using manual milling machines to make a small metal block and then drill holes in it.
Some trial and error is expected in a compressed course. Hummon says he drilled a hole slightly left of the correct spot after he flipped his block over a few times and got disoriented.
For years, he's had the luxury of working sporadically as a substitute music teacher because his wife, Diane, earns a healthy salary as a marketing officer. But after she was laid off twice in the past three years, the couple had to draw substantially from savings.
"I want to work full time," he says. "If I'm not going to make music, I want to make something."
Mike Hunter, a 23-year construction worker who's been out of work since he was hurt on the job a year ago, says simply, "I needed to do something different." Since Hunter wasn't eligible for unemployment benefits, he has depleted his savings and denied himself pleasures such as eating out.
The program "gets you in the workforce so quickly," says the wiry 39-year-old.
Hunter says the hourly pay of a CNC operator is comparable to construction, but he expects to earn more because the work is steadier. He already looks like a journeyman, smoothly turning a crank to move his block at optimum speed as the machine shaves it.
Unemployed factory workers aren't necessarily better equipped to negotiate manufacturing's modern-day job market. One student, John Ellavsky, assembled the outer shell of buses for 22 years before he was laid off in early 2011. He earned $19 an hour, but assembly jobs for new employees at other factories pay about half that. "I'm 42 with a house and three kids," he says. "That just doesn't cut it."
The Right Skills Now approach - rapidly giving workers specific, if limited, expertise - could be a new paradigm. Manufacturers that routinely trained new employees no longer have the time or resources because entry-level skills are more sophisticated in a digital age, says Anthony Carnevale, head of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
"You really need something to get you through the door" at a firm - then acquire more skills later, Carnevale says.
By contrast, workers who take two years to earn an associates degree may find their skills less relevant upon graduation in light of ever-evolving technology, says Deloitte director John Hagel.
A stream of qualified CNC operators can't come quickly enough for New Hope-based Custom Mold & Design, which has sought several for months. General Manager Mark Morris says the company, which makes factory molds, robot parts and surgical tools, could boost production by 50% if it were fully staffed. Instead, raw metal for planned jobs piles up and some CNC milling machines sit idle, doors open and inner chambers darkened.
Dave Swanson, operations manager of Viking Drill & Tool in St. Paul, was so desperate for a CNC operator that he hired Ryan Lohoner even before Lohoner completed his Dunwoody class. Lohoner, 36, who was laid off from his courier job last year, more than doubled his former $10 hourly wage.
The tall, bearded technician, who wore a Minnesota Vikings cap as he crisply replaced a part on a grinding machine, has restored his cable service and is eating out some.
More critically, "I just wanted to get a skill that people want," he says.