To Michael Garner and the people at Phillips Corp., American manufacturing starts with the people, not the machine tools.
A quick look at the Phillips website reveals some impressive figures. The Hanover, Md.-based supplier of manufacturing technology products and services boasts 19,080 machine tool installations (and counting), 10 Haas Factory Outlet (HFO) showrooms within the U.S., and partnerships with more than 400 Haas Technical Education Centers (HTEC) across 12 states. Similar figures exist for Phillips’ extensive presence in India and a growing footprint in mainland China, earning it the enviable title of the World’s Largest HFO.
Despite the company’s many successes, however, it’s not what Phillips Commercial Division President Michael Garner likes to talk about. Spend a few minutes with him on the phone or a Zoom call and you’ll soon find that his passion isn’t so much about machine tools, automation and 3D printers (although he is quite animated about the latter). Rather, it’s about addressing a problem that plagues everyone in the industry: the shortage of skilled workers. More importantly, it’s about giving the young people needed to fill those jobs the same opportunities he had when entering the trades, now more than three decades past.
Of Duck Calls and Diesel Mechanics
“I graduated from high school in 1989 and wanted to go for a degree in electrical engineering,” he said. “The computer electronics industry was booming back then, and it seemed like a good career choice. The problem was, my dad told me that I’d better get a job so I could help pay for college, and aside from helping out during the summer at my grandparents’ resort, I had little in the way of marketable skills.”
Fortunately, one of his dad’s friends owned a plastic injection molding shop and offered to give the aspiring college student a position as a machine operator. Garner, an avid hunter and sportsman since his youth, walked in for the interview and was immediately hooked. “They were making duck calls, of all things. Within six months, I’d set aside my college plans and was working my way through a moldmaking apprenticeship. I fell in love with manufacturing.”
Garner noted that he was fortunate on several fronts. Aside from the manufacturing job opportunity, he took an auto mechanics class in high school. Since his father was a multi-craft maintenance mechanic, he’d had exposure to welding and machinery early on. But thanks to diminishing vocational training and enthusiasm for four-year college education, most young people today don’t get the same chance to learn about the trades. And that, he insists, will come back and bite all of us.“What are we going to do when nobody can fix things anymore?” he asked. “Who are you going to call when your washing machine breaks or you want to build a house or your car’s sitting on the side of the road and there’s no one left who can do those things? Our economy depends on people who can work with their hands—the machinists, electricians, plumbers, diesel mechanics, construction workers and all the rest–and if we don’t start addressing the shortage of these people, our country’s going to end up in some serious trouble.”
A Productive Partnership
Garner and Phillips Corp. are working diligently to avoid that. The 65-year-old company supports and partners with hundreds of HTECs throughout the eastern U.S., an educational initiative that began under founders Albert and Jean Phillips’ leadership more than 30 years ago.
The shop where Garner served his moldmaking apprenticeship bought the third Haas CNC machining center to go to Arkansas. That was in 1991, and Garner felt such an affinity to the brand and to machine tools in general that he soon went to work for the local Haas distributor as a service technician. When the line moved to Phillips shortly afterward, Garner went with it.
“I’ve been connected to Haas for as long as I’ve been in the industry, whether as a customer, a repair person or as a business partner,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun watching the company grow and taking part in all that they’ve done for American manufacturing. We’ve had an incredible relationship.”
A big part of that relationship has been working with the Oxnard, Calif.-based machine builder to further develop the HTEC program. Today, the Phillips territory network includes 434 high schools, vocational-technical centers, community colleges and other educational facilities, all of which use Haas equipment and offer students the opportunity to get the training needed to enter the manufacturing industry.
Learning in the Old Dominion
There’s also Phillips’ work over the past 15 years with Danville Community College and its affiliate, the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Virginia, institutions that Garner considers to be world-class models for training the workforce of tomorrow. Here, students down to the middle school level are introduced to various advanced manufacturing disciplines, culminating in a third-year capstone program at graduation.
“The IALR operates just like a production floor, from planning and programming to quality control and production management,” said Garner. “It’s all tied together, so each student gets to serve in these different roles and has access to roughly 100 CNC machine tools. Just think about these young people getting exposed to that kind of training opportunity over a six- or seven-year period. It’s incredible.”
Clash of Trades
Garner associates Project MFG with one of his favorite sports teams, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. That’s because Ratcliff—a Mississippi State Bulldog—approaches this interstate advanced manufacturing competition with the same zeal as a Southeastern Conference (SEC) football championship. Project MFG helps “groom a league of elite machinists” from area schools to engage in friendly competitions, culminating in a national championship each year—a program that Phillips and Haas Automation found easy to get behind.
“When Adele pitched the idea to us, we immediately agreed, giving them consignment equipment, applications support and training,” he said. “We’ve always been very proud to be a part of Project MFG, but especially this year, after three of the four national finalists were from our HTEC schools.”
Not surprisingly, the program has highlighted the need for training in advanced manufacturing throughout the region. Garner noted that many of the area’s schools, most of which teach only basic CNC lathe and mill operation, are now asking about five-axis machining and mill-turn centers.
There’s also an uptick in 3D printer inquiries, a technology that Garner predicts will not only attract more young people to manufacturing but change it in fundamental ways. “It’s a lot like when wire EDMs first started appearing in tool and die shops, in that it revolutionized how they operate,” he said. “That’s what additive manufacturing and hybrid additive are going to do for the industry.”
Pride in the Trade
Phillips is engaged in yet another educational program, one that Garner holds near and dear to his heart. It’s called Be Pro Be Proud, and it is to trade careers what bloodmobiles are to blood drives. Founded by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and its non-profit arm, Associated Industries in Arkansas, Be Pro Be Proud seeks to educate young people about career options beyond a college education.
Using a tractor-trailer loaded with virtual reality simulators and other instructional tools, educators drive around the state to area schools and give students there the opportunity to learn about multiple “blue-collar” jobs—what Garner refers to as the steel trades—in a single place. These include heavy equipment operation, commercial truck driving, welding, plumbing, HVAC, construction work and, of course, CNC machining and programming.
The idea has caught on. Garner said that South Carolina has instituted a similar program, and national trucking organizations, among others, are showing support. “It’s one of my great passions,” he said. “I’m on the board of Be Pro Be Proud. Phillips has donated a desktop CNC, and I encourage everyone to check it out. It’s a great program.”
Garner concluded by stating an uncomfortable fact. “Around 40 years ago, the people of the United States did this really clever thing: they decided that everybody should have a college degree. Somehow, they forgot that we need electricians, machinists and auto mechanics, so they took those programs out of the middle and high schools. As a result, young people weren’t introduced to these important and good-paying career paths. But the people at Phillips, the Gene Haas Foundation, IALR, Danville and Project MFG—all of us realize that these jobs and our young people represent the future of America. It’s our goal to help others realize that as well.”