It's Hard to Find Good Help

It’s So Hard To Find Good Help These Days

It’s a common theme in the metalworking industry. The continuing shortage of skilled labor is making it difficult for some shops to grow, or even take full advantage of the current demand for their services.

Such is the case with Perkins Engineering of Sussex, Wisconsin. “The current low levels of unemployment and the lack of skilled – and I mean skilled – people to program and run machines,” explains Allen “Rusty” Perkins II, company president and chief designer, “is making it difficult for us to take full advantage of our potential. I would add another machine in a second if I thought that we could get more people.”

Perkins is a full-service shop that specializes in taking customers’ jobs from concept to completion, providing product design and development, prototyping and all the associated metalworking to build custom machines, tools and equipment for a variety of industries.

“We like to think of ourselves as not only a machine shop, but a shop that’s able to take a customer’s concept from start to finish,” says Rusty. “If somebody comes in and says, ‘I would like to develop a product,’ we can design it, develop it, model it in CAD and make the prototype.”

In years past, that’s where the process would have stopped. If the customer wanted to go into production, Perkins didn’t have the equipment to do the job economically. Such is not the case today. Since 1997, Perkins has expanded its capability and increased its machining capacity by adding four Haas vertical machining centers to its lineup of machine tools: a VF-2, VF-3, VF-4 and VF-5.

“We try to control all manufacturing processes,” Rusty explains, “to first give the customer a prototype; then, if he feels it’s something he wants to produce, we can make a production version and quote production quantities. With the Haas machines, we now have the capability to be competitive all the way through to the end.”

According to Rusty, this start-to-finish approach is what gives Perkins its competitive edge. “There are a lot of machine shops,” 

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says, “but I don’t think there are as many with the engineering talent to do the design work and carry it through to the build. That’s our little niche.”

And it’s a niche that keeps Perkins busy. “I can get more work now than I can eat up. All I have to do is pick up the phone,” Rusty says, “which is a good position to be in.”

“We’re very diversified,” explains Ralph Bartelt, plant manager. “We do a lot of things other than machining. We have welding, sheet metal, fabricating, bending, prototype; we have an engineering department, a lot of different things. You can bring us anything you want, and we can make it, design it, make drawings for it, whatever it takes. We sort of have a name for it: If you can’t get it made, go to Perkins.”

Such diversification not only keeps the work flowing, but also offers Perkins some insurance against economic downturns.

“We’re invested in different areas of the economy,” notes Rusty, “from electronics to horticulture to the food industry to the chemical industry. So if the economy does take a dump, at least we’re relatively spread out.” A valid concern, in light of current economic forecasts.

By providing its services to many different industries, Perkins is able to smooth the economic ebb and flow. The company boosts the bottom line further by investing wisely in the business, and buying equipment that provides the best value.

“I would like to see our building get bigger over the next five years,” Rusty says, “but I won’t put money into a building unless I absolutely have to. I would rather put the money into a machine first, and literally force myself out of the building. I’m conservative,” he adds, “and I won’t add equipment unless I feel comfortable enough with the economy, comfortable enough with the manpower, to keep that equipment busy.”

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When Perkins purchased their first Haas machines in 1997 (a VF-3 and a VF-4), they had more than enough work to keep the new equipment busy. Although they had other CNCs at the time – a couple of Brown & Sharpes, a Mazak and a newer Milltronics – these were older and slow, and, according to both Rusty and Ralph, getting the machines serviced was difficult. “Those machines were very slow,” Ralph says, “and the service was terrible. The Haas machines are probably three times as fast, now.”

Perkins chose the Haas machines largely on the recommendation of one of their customers. “A company that we were doing a lot of work for down in Milwaukee was using them,” Ralph relates, “and they liked them; they were very happy with them. I went down and saw what they were doing, saw the parts they were making, and decided to get two of them.

We tried the VF-3 and VF-4 first, then went on from there. As far as I’m concerned, for the machine, the quality, the workmanship, they’re great. I don’t need a machine that costs $200,000.”

But Perkins was concerned with more than just the up-front cost of a machine. “When you buy a machine,” Rusty comments, “the first thing you want to look at is who’s going to take care of it for you, and what happens when it’s down. You’ve got this investment, and if you can’t keep the thing up and running, you might as well throw it away.

“We get outstanding service from Haas – we probably couldn’t expect better. If there’s a problem, they’re over here in 10 minutes.” (Of course, it helps that the local Haas Factory Outlet, a Division of Productivity Wisconsin, is just up the road.) “The guys who are doing the work seem to know their stuff,” adds Ralph. “They’re very knowledgeable.”

So, what’s holding Perkins back? They’ve got the work; they’ve got the equipment. In fact, they could probably take on more work and add more equipment . . . if only they could find the people to run the machines.

“The quality of workmanship here is fantastic; it’s beautiful,” Ralph says. “That’s what our customers require. There has to be no burr, and we have to hold half a thousandth on almost everything. That’s what the machines are doing; that’s what our guys are doing; that’s why we’re where we are.

“The work is out there,” he continues. “We have the clientele, if I could find the people. Right now, in all honesty, I could put several machines on that floor and fill them up with work – if I could find the people to run them. As far as I’m concerned, the machines and the people are the company.”

Rusty agrees, “You have to bring the people together with the machines; they work synergistically. One without the other isn’t going to help you at all.

We’ve got some very creative, talented people out there who are able to make these machines really sing. It’s through their creativity, and running the parts in the most efficient way – multiple setups, multiple vises, multiple jobs in the machine, proper use of tooling – that they generate a profit for us. Now, combine that with a good, fast machine, and you’ve got something going for you.

“Anybody can buy a machine,” he continues, “but if you don’t have anybody to run it, or anybody to do a good job running it, you’re in trouble.”