Richard Smith, left, operates a mill while Chris Murphy works on a lathe at G&S Machine on Cherry Avenue. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

Of the Keizertimes

Local employers are having trouble finding qualified machinists and mechanics to build and repair equipment, a survey of area businesses shows.

Nearly one-third of fabricated metal manufacturers in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties told the Oregon Employment Department that they were struggling to find qualified workers in 2011. The results, released this month in a report called “What Employers Need,” said hands-on skills and experience were becoming difficult to find for many employers.

Workers skilled in machine use are among the most valued, according to the report. That statement bears out at G&S Machine on Cherry Avenue, which does general repair – “you break it, we fix it kind of a deal,” according to company president Mike Gatchet.

“Manual machinists are getting to be a dinosaur,” Gatchet said. “They’re hard to find. Everyone’s teaching them in school how to program and run off a computer. It’s hurting the industry.”

When it comes to that line of work, Gatchet said, there’s simply no substitute for experience.

“A lot of it is common sense – someone who can think outside the dots as far as getting something fixed in a reasonable amount of time and being able to put it back together without costing myself and the customer a lot of money,” Gatchet said. “… You’re not going to learn that anywhere other than inside a shop.”

The report addressed primarily manufacturers who specialize in metal fabrication, but other companies do extensive repair and building work in addition to their primary task. For example, the Oregon Cherry Growers co-op fabricates some 75 percent of its equipment, according to maintenance supervisor Stewart Pryor.

“When we hire mechanics they stay for a long time,” Pryor said. “But I have trouble finding qualified mechanics.”

With Truitt Brothers announcing some 139 layoffs with the closure of its green bean packing plant in Salem, he may find a wealth of qualified people. But even as the food processing industry has shrunk in the area, Pryor said those workers transition into other industries and aren’t in the applicant pool anymore.

For Gatchet, his younger applicants may have taken classes, but he said those students often learned computer skills, but didn’t spend much time in a shop environment.

“They’d rather take the easy route, sit behind a machine and program it and just make parts,” he said. “You have to have a passion for being a machinist.”

Math skills are also highly valued in the industry, according to the report, with several employers chiming in. Gatchet said workers need to understand algebra and trigonometry to thrive in his shop.

Gatchet wants to see a stronger emphasis on welding and machine skills in schools. Two local high schools – South Salem and McKay – have a couple of manufacturing courses, while the automotive programs at McNary, McKay and Sprague offer basic welding skills, according to the Salem-Keizer School District.

Most mechanics Pryor hires tend to be older. He has little problem finding someone qualified who is 50 years of age or older, but younger applicants who “came up in the industry like I did” isn’t easy.

“My own kid went to school to be a schoolteacher, and he has no mechanical inclination whatsoever – nor does he have any desire to have it,” Pryor said.

Chemeketa Community College has two full-time instructors and four part-time who teach in the college’s machinery program. Sheldon Schnider, senior instructor and program chair, said a new applied sciences building will expand his workspace sixfold to 30,000 square feet.

The report got his attention, both as a teacher and a professional: He spent 17 years in the machining industry before turning to teaching full time. And it’s not the first time he’s noticed employers finding it difficult to attract skilled employees.

“I went through the tech boom in the ‘90s when you couldn’t find machinists period,” he said.

The program had about 80 students over the past three terms, but said lack of space constricted that number. He said the program is “growing by leaps and bounds” over the past few years, and he hopes the new space and equipment, including facilities for teaching electrical discharge machining, will allow that trend to continue.

Students learn both manual and computer-based machining simultaneously, he said. For example, a manual lathe and computer-based lathe class would be taught at the same time.

“One thing we really pride ourselves on is the basics – students need to understand this,” he said.

The report also cites employers who believe many applicants lack the soft skills – communication, work ethic, punctuality – to succeed. But for these two employers, attitude wasn’t the problem – it was aptitude.

“It takes the right person and the right chemistry,” Gatchet said. “… But it works out and it doesn’t work out.”