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High Demand For Machinists Area Runs Short Of Skilled Workers Despite Good Pay, Plenty Of Jobs

With all the changes technology is bringing to the job market, there’s one blue-collar skill that’s in as much demand as ever.

Machinists with two-year college degrees can get a job in Spokane at the drop of a drill press.

“There are lots of opportunities,” said Bob Cooper, president of the Spokane Area Economic Development Council.

But the number of students seeking jobs as machinists remains relatively low.

At Spokane Community College, only 18 students enrolled this fall in a machine shop program that has room for 22. The college could offer a night program, but so far there isn’t enough interest.

Spokane’s economy is being held back to some extent by the lack of qualified machinists.

More qualified machinists in Spokane could attract new employers and help existing employers expand, Cooper said.

Students who graduate from the two-year program can top out at $15 an hour after a few years on the job. Last spring, the college’s seven graduating machinists all landed jobs by the time they got their diplomas.

“If you go through here and learn everything, somebody will snatch you right up,” said Clark Porter, 37, a former homebuilder now enrolled at SCC’s machine shop.

Many jobs are with large employers who offer good benefits and steady paychecks.

The list includes Johnson Matthey, Itron, Olivetti, Hewlett-Packard and Key Tronic, Cooper said.

Others are more traditional machine shops that fabricate metal components.

A lot of companies take machinists with basic skills and train them for their own manufacturing processes, many of which involve the use of computerized equipment.

Along with machinists, Spokane employers want workers with skill at computer integrated manufacturing, another program offered at SCC.

Susan Strothers, manager in the electronics division at Johnson Matthey, said she can’t find enough machinists to run the company’s high-tech equipment. The company’s sales are growing 30 to 35 percent a year, she said, so plenty of new jobs are expected in the future.

“It’s an excellent field for people to be in,” Strothers said. “I think people need to recognize the trades are alive and well.”

Ray Paulson, 42, spent nearly 20 years as a woodworker for Long Lake Lumber Co., but lost his job when the firm closed last year. “I’m a woodworker by choice,” he said.

There are fewer jobs now in the wood products industry, so Paulson enrolled at SCC in the machinists program. The state helps pay his way with a worker retraining program.

SCC students learn to manufacture metal products using lathes, grinders and milling machines. They also train on computerized manufacturing machines.

The machine shop is one of the college’s oldest programs, and some of the milling equipment dates back to 1945.

Machinist skills are so much in demand that Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. sent four workers from the Trentwood Rolling Mill to Erickson’s class to train as machinists, said instructor Cliff Erickson.

For students, getting the training is a serious investment.

Along with attending college and paying tuition for six quarters, students are required to buy about $2,000 worth of tools they will need once they are on the job.

Starting pay often ranges from $7 to $9 an hour, which is comparable to salaries earned by non-skilled, non-union laborers. But salaries go up after graduates learn on-the-job skills.

Between school and on-the-job training, students have to spend five or six years learning the trade before they will be rewarded with the higher paying jobs, Erickson said.

That’s no more time than it takes to earn a four-year college degree and get established in a good job.

“The thing I like about the trade is the personal satisfaction you get of making a part and then seeing what you’ve done,” Erickson said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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