Tool and die in demand in auto plants

By Amy Eddings -

Andy Harrod, 32, of New Bremen, measures specs on the production rims AAP St. Marys makes.

Levi A. Morman | The Lima News

ST. MARYS — Ask auto industry analyst Kristin Dziczech with the Center for Automotive Research in Detroit where the biggest skills gap is as Baby Boomers retire, and she’s quick to answer: tool and die.

“It’s one of the most critical talent needs,” she said. “The share of those workers under the age of 35 is 2 percent. Roughly 40 percent of tool and die are currently eligible, or will be eligible, to retire in the next five to 10 years.”

She added, “Without tool and die, we don’t have an industry.”

There isn’t a training program or college degree called “tool and die.” The term encompasses all the skilled trades necessary to shape or mold or stamp something: millwrights, electricians, screw machine operators, plumbers and pipefitters. More and more, automakers and other manufacturers are looking for people who are familiar with all of these skills not only to build these machines but to maintain them.

“Like a lot of companies, we no longer have specialists,” said Dan Hosek, senior manager at wheelmaker AAP St. Marys Corp. “We need multi-craft technicians, people who troubleshoot and can repair a variety of different machines. Motor repair, mechanical assemblies, industrial electrical. People who are familiar with hydraulics, pnematics, robotics.”

In other words, a jack of all trades. Or, more formally, a multi-craft industrial technician. Apollo Career Center in Lima offers a training program for it. Hosek said he’s identified several employees to go into that program.

“There’s not enough in the pipeline,” he said. “Kids aren’t going into that.”

At Vanamatic in Delphos, where 10 to 15 percent of its 65 full-time workers are expected to retire in the next five years, the company has set up “assistant,” “coordinator” and “mentoring” roles in-house to help train the next generation of production leaders.

“This system is working quite well,” operations manager Adam Wiltsie wrote in an email. “The younger leaders have plenty of time to get acquainted in the role, while the past group leaders are there to support them as mentors.”

That’s what former group leaders Dan Jettinghoff, 57, and Rodney Wagner, 59, are doing. They’ve transitioned from running Vanamatic’s machines to repairing them, while mentoring 45-year-old John Munoz. The three of them are currently rebuilding a screw machine, adding components that will be easier for operators to switch out between jobs.

“There are so many things you don’t see on a daily basis that when you do see it, they tell you how to go about it and what the best way is with dealing with it,” Munoz said. “It comes from experience, people who understand the machines in and out. You don’t have any school anywhere that will teach you this thing.”

Wagner said it works both ways. He said younger employees are more likely to understand new technology, like the collaborative robot Wiltsie recently designed and built to place O-rings on certain couplings. Wagner said a part-time employee, a student at the Apollo Career Center, recently helped him fix one of the plant’s new machines.

“I looked at it and said, ‘I don’t know,’” he said, holding his hands up in mock frustration. “And he basically walked me through it. I’m still learning something new every day.”

Andy Harrod, 32, of New Bremen, measures specs on the production rims AAP St. Marys makes. Harrod, 32, of New Bremen, measures specs on the production rims AAP St. Marys makes. Levi A. Morman | The Lima News

By Amy Eddings

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.

Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.