Hypertherm: Leading The High-Tech Education Charge

Hypertherm’s troubles reaching a tipping point in 2006, when the company foresaw the need to add 180 new operators by 2009 in order to satisfy growing demand. A great problem to have, but the company would have to double its plant floor employees. They had already been having difficulty finding the right people, and getting such a large number — particularly in rural New Hampshire — was a seemingly impossible task.

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New Hampshire-based Hypertherm, a manufacturer of advanced metal cutting systems, was once connected to an ample supply of local or regional suppliers for its circuit board and component needs, but in the last few years, the landscape has changed. Many of the companies were forced out of business by the economy, and as they left, so did their skilled employees, either via attrition or relocation. The lack of skilled labor nearly forced the company to restructure its entire operations, but instead, they made the decision to do something to change that bleak outlook.

Hypertherm, founded in 1968, has been employee-owned since 2001, and currently sells its products to companies in more than 60 countries. It holds more than 100 patents in a variety of categories, such as plasma cutting systems, CNC controls and CAM cutting software. The company is highly respected among its community near Hanover, which also includes Dartmouth College, and has recently put the finishing touches on a new 160,000 square-foot facility.

A well-unknown Deloitte report stated that 600,000 skilled manufacturing positions were going unfilled because potential employees simply didn’t have the skillset, and while those figures may have changed since the report’s release, Hypertherm found that to be the reality up in New Hampshire. Michelle Avila, public relations manager at Hypertherm, says, “We believe the shortage is caused by a number of factors — among them, the aging of the American workforce, a shift in the types of courses taught by schools and Hypertherm’s location in a less populated area of the country.”

Hypertherm’s troubles reaching a tipping point in 2006, when the company foresaw the need to add 180 new operators by 2009 in order to satisfy growing demand. A great problem to have, but with only 120 operators on staff at the time, the company would have to double its plant floor employees. They had already been having difficulty finding the right people, and getting such a large number — particularly in rural New Hampshire — was a seemingly impossible task.

Avila admits that Hypertherm had to look at all possible options, including moving some of the manufacturing capacity overseas. But its executives have a commitment to not only boosting their region economically, but also relying on the factors that make American manufacturing great: quality, speed and proximity to customers, among many others. Instead, the company decided to embark on different path: they established the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute (HTTI) in order to make the employees they needed when they did not exist otherwise.

Foundations of HTTI

While there were few skilled workers already in the Hanover area, Hypertherm understood that there were many who sought new, more employable skills, and it partnered with both the states of New Hampshire and nearby Vermont in order to establish the HTTI, and worked with Vermont HITEC — a non-profit organization that has already run successful training programs — to establish an immersion-style curriculum. The nine-week program is an intensive dive into the world of machining, and isn’t restricted to those with previous manufacturing or machining experience.

For the most part, HTTI is attracting those who are completely new to machining, and oftentimes, factory work as a whole. Avila says, “When recruiting and hiring, we look at a person’s attitude and aptitude to learn, rather than their background. Some of our existing machinists choose to return to school to advance their skills and careers, but that is the exception rather than the rule.”

That drive to learn and succeed is critical, because the program isn’t a cakewalk. Avila says students often spend eight or nine hours a day, five days a week, in HTTI classrooms or labs, learning the fundamentals of machining and how the tools work. They have an additional four hours of “homework” every night. It might sound like a lot, but Avila says the model is “absolutely repeatable.”

HTTI isn’t just about hammering students with job skills, either — it’s helping them earn degrees they might not have otherwise. In 2009, Hypertherm formed a partnership with the New Hampshire community college system. Avila says that the 28 credits earned during the nine-week HTTI program can now be applied toward an associate’s degree and a certificate in Machine Tool Technology. She also says the program looks to be expanding even further in the next few years, as more unemployed or underemployed people realize the potential for being skilled in CNC machining.

Meet an HTTI graduate

Naturally, the best way to gauge the value of a given educational system is to get first-hand testimony from those who have worked their way through it. Rob Callow had a story familiar to many unsatisfied workers: he was a salaried retail employee who was overworked and underappreciated, particularly during the holiday season. He’d heard about HTTI through word-of-mouth, but had a lot of uncertainty in making the plunge — he has two children to care for, and the program isn’t part-time.

But he did make the commitment, and today, he looks back on his time at HTTI and says, “Toward the end of the program, near graduation, I knew for sure this was a career change I could enjoy and do well.”

The road wasn’t easy. Callow says, “Each morning we would begin with measurement exercises and a review of the previous day’s assignments. We would then cover new material in everything from math, machining history and modern technology, blueprint reading, measurement techniques and in-class machine operation on a small turnstyle CNC machine.” This was followed by more classroom experience, and in the last four weeks, Callow and his peers transitioned to worked almost exclusively on the machines themselves in order to learn how to run them efficiently and correct part dimensions.

While the HTTI program focuses on high-tech machining, students also pick up knowledge on a variety of other systems and philosophies that make modern-day manufacturing possible. Callow says, “There is so much involved with CNC machine operation, but HTTI definitely prepared me in full for the position I was assigned. The program gave me good insight to what was expected and helped to instill in me a drive to do even more. I learned about Lean manufacturing and 5S, which we use every day. This is a continuous improvement process, and I got a good base for it at HTTI.”

Since graduation, Callow has quickly received his certification in the cell he had been assigned, and was advanced to the next level of machine operator after 4 months. He says he’s looking forward to returning to HTTI classes in the future in order to continue the process of learning and becoming more skilled in his new trade. And to Hypertherm, this is an ideal situation — they get an enthusiastic employee for a relatively small up-front effort, and even if he doesn’t stay with the company for the long haul, he will be able to take those skills to another manufacturer in need.

‘The rule rather than the exception’

Clearly, Callow and his fellow HTTI graduates have found a great deal of value in a different kind of manufacturing education experience, but what about Hypertherm itself? The reason many firms refuse to implement stronger internal training regimens is that it simply costs too much, or that there’s no potential of a positive ROI.

Hypertherm’s associates would strongly disagree with the thesis that a comprehensive training program is necessarily a path toward loss. Avila says, “First and foremost, we’re finding the workers we desperately need.” For a lot of high-tech manufacturers like Hypertherm, that alone would be enough to consider an educational program a resounding success. But the company has taken these achievements further, increasing productivity on the plant floor, because existing employees don’t have to take time out of their day to train the new ones, because they’re in HTTI. In addition, Avila says all their machinists are simply getting better because of the focused training.

And from this success, it would seem that a Hypertherm-HTTI model will start to become increasingly necessary in a labor landscape filled with more people with less of the requisite skills. In fact, many believe the aging workforce will balloon the current problems, meaning that things are going to get worse before they get better via government intervention or other sweeping reform — if those are ever to come. At this point, Hypertherm is years ahead of its competition — along with most all other manufacturers — in terms of developing their own workforce.

And if any company is still having significant issues finding the necessary labor force to keep their operations up-and-running, perhaps they should start thinking about how they can help mitigate the problem — not only to solve the immediate problem of hiring, but also to better equip a portion of the American workforce in dire need of re-training. And the real reality of the skilled labor situation, Avila says, is that HTTI-style training will soon become “the rule rather than the exception.”

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