Features

Automatic employment

"Automatic employment" Continued...

Issue: "Coming to America," April 6, 2013

The machines are making components for a sensitive measuring device Iverson’s company, Chicago Dial Indicator, designs and manufactures. Twenty machines are a modern breed known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machines and are automated: After programming them to perform precise, repetitive tasks, Iverson says he can turn off the lights and lock up his shop at night leaving many of them running.

He paid $180,000 last summer for one particular machine that runs unattended seven hours a night, shaping brass casings: “When I come in, in the morning, I’ve got 192 parts done.” Because of automation, Iverson can keep up production without adding a night shift of workers, which would increase his labor costs.

Grasp an oily office door handle, brave a small, snarling (though friendly) Boston terrier, and Iverson will sit at his desk beneath a black-and-white photo of his grandfather—Chicago Dial Indicator has been family-owned since 1932—and explain why automation is essential, not harmful, to jobs.

“If you’re out of business, what good are you?” he asks. Iverson’s company has competitors in the United States, Switzerland, Germany, China, and Japan. Automation has enabled him to produce more parts at a lower cost: In 10 years he hasn’t raised his prices more than 10 percent, although the cost of raw materials has increased dramatically. As long as he can stay competitive, he argues, he’ll be able to keep employing his 25 or so workers.

Iverson bought the $180,000 machine from his brother Terry, who is part owner of the company. Terry is president of a business of his own, Iverson & Company, also in Des Plaines, which sells the modern CNC lathes and mills manufacturers rely on to create precision parts.

Terry Iverson says manufacturing’s problem is not automation, but a lack of skilled labor: “For 33 years now I’ve knocked on doors and dealt with customers, and everywhere I go, they’re like, ‘Terry, I can’t find enough skilled people. Do you know where a good machinist is? Do you know where a good CNC programmer is?’”

A 2011 report by the Manufacturing Institute found that up to 600,000 manufacturing jobs were unfilled, with companies complaining they couldn’t find enough skilled workers to hire. That was in spite of a 9 percent unemployment rate at the time.

Terry Iverson says automation isn’t eliminating all job openings, it’s just increasing the skill set employers are looking for. Instead of hiring a worker to load parts, a company might need someone to program the CNC machines. Or repair them when they break down. That may mean a worker has to go back to school to learn additional skills.

When Erik Iverson needed a skilled worker last year, he called a local technical school and asked to interview a graduate. He found and hired David Kartom, an Iranian immigrant who left his job exchanging Canadian currency, transferring car titles, and cashing checks to spend six months learning programming language for CNC lathes and mills. “I was tired of working in a cage,” Kartom explained to me.

Now 32-year-old Kartom, wearing a gold chain beneath a blue work shirt, writes arcane code. A single, short line looks like this:

“X12.25 Y3.3”

Each letter and number instructs the CNC machine’s automated tools to move up, down, left, right, or perform a function like grinding or cutting. Programmers like Kartom read blueprints for a part, then translate the dimensions to code. Shaping a single aluminum part may take five printed pages of code, Kartom said.

Not all the jobs in Erik Iverson’s shop require advanced skills. Some of his workers don’t speak English, but can easily load a machine and push a button. 

Erik says those low-skill manufacturing jobs are slowly disappearing: “If you do not continually learn, whether formally or informally, the times will pass you by and you won’t be efficient at your job. Or you won’t have a job.” Erik is paying one employee to attend night school to learn CNC programming.

U.s. manufacturing faces a chronic problem: As baby boomers retire from manufacturing careers, few young people seem eager to replace them. Terry Iverson says many students, prompted by parents and teachers, view manufacturing with a 50-year-old stereotype of being “dark and dirty and dangerous.”

Terry has made it his mission to dispel that stereotype. He sits on two educational advisory boards that promote manufacturing technology and regularly visits schools to assure students of the high-tech job opportunities available in manufacturing. He fears too many jobs are going overseas: “In order for this country to be great, we have to manufacture.”

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