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The Midlife Machinist: It's Never too Late for a Career Change

Category: Smartforce By: Catherine Ross, Director of Education, Smartforce Development, AMT - The Association for Manufacturing Technology Nov 8, 2021

Bernie Weiler sat down at the kitchen table to have a serious discussion with his wife. At the age of 38, his body was breaking down from concrete construction roadwork and moving the 80-lb. forms used for pouring concrete foundations. He made a good salary, but after two torn rotator cuffs, Bernie couldn’t see himself doing that kind of work for another 25 years.

With two infant children and a mortgage, a career change seemed risky. Rather than string out his education over the typical four years, Bernie and his wife decided that full-time technical school was doable if they adjusted their living expenses.

“I knew once I quit concrete work, I would want to do something electro-mechanical or with machining,” he says. To help make the choice, he attended a career night at Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) in Cleveland, Wis., just 10 miles from his home in Kiel. is a federal website with portals for employers, educators, and career seekers. Users will find a variety of information, ranging from how to set up an apprentice program to finding one.

“It was a little weird at first. Some of the instructors probably wondered if I was a dad just wandering around looking for his son or daughter,” says Bernie. “I talked with instructors about CNCs, programming, equipment, and what goes into a finished product. It was a leap of faith, but they sold me on the two-year machining apprenticeship program right there.”

Fast-Track Learning
One of the advantages in the State of Wisconsin is Wisconsin’s Registered Machinist Apprenticeships offer schedule flexibility for completing the required programs, which include 432 hours in paid-related instruction and 7,888 hours of on-the-job instruction. Some apprentices choose to work full time and attend class one day a week (such as Bernie’s coworker Cassie – see story), but Bernie wanted to complete his schooling as quickly as possible. Fortunately, the industry fascinated him.

“I had always found the precision aspect of machining interesting,” he says. “It’s amazing how you can take a chunk of aluminum and know you're going to make part after part with tolerances so tight that you literally couldn't get a hair between two pieces.”

Another important aspect of a machinist apprenticeship that appealed to him is the diversity of technologies. The on-the-job learning portion of an apprenticeship requires:

  • 400 hours of work related to precision measurement and inspection
  • 2,000 hours of milling
  • 200 hours of drilling
  • 2,000 hours of turning (lathe)
  • 200 hours of cut-off
  • 200 hours of metallurgy
  • 500 hours of bench work (assembly)
  • 2,388 of location-specific work, which can include grinding, EDM, welding, broaching, CAD/CAM, and CNC programming.

“I didn’t want to get stuck on a single machine for the rest of my life,” says Bernie. “I liked that the apprenticeship would move me around and provide hands-on experience in various aspects of the machining process.”

Cross-trained employees benefit manufacturing companies, too, giving them flexibility to move people between machines as customer demand changes the types of processes required.

“Apprenticeships are proven talent development systems that are highly-customizable to meet the specialized needs of any employer. I recommend apprenticeships to any company that’s ready to take an assertive, efficient approach to training new hires and upskilling existing workers.”

- Catherine Ross, Director of Education, AMT Smartforce Development

Setting Up Shop
To complete the on-the-job portion of his education, Bernie had secured an apprenticeship with a local manufacturer. As he neared graduation, he checked with his company contact, the HR manager. After no response by email or phone, he drove to the company in person to learn the HR manager had quit and the apprenticeship was no longer available due to a company downturn.

Fortuitously, Bernie had remembered a conversation between the LTC machine shop manager and the local Haas representative, who spoke highly of JTD Enterprises. He drove straight from the apprenticeship that fell through and literally knocked on JTD’s door, where company owner Julie Hoban was at her desk.

During an impromptu, one-hour discussion with Julie and Tom Hoban (JTD’s shop manager and Julie’s husband), they all agreed that an apprenticeship was a good fit and they hired him on the spot. His start date was June 4, 2018, which was the same start as his original apprenticeship.

“We hadn’t planned on hiring anyone, but Julie and I agreed that we couldn’t let someone like Bernie walk back out the door,” recalls Tom.

Fast-forward three years and Bernie has completed his apprenticeship and earned his journeyman’s card. He currently works on the Haas ST-35Y CNC lathe, already earns a journeyman’s salary (which is at least $23/hour), and doesn’t beat up his body or mind. His wife is happier, too.

“She's glad knowing that I’m doing something now that I enjoy. I was pretty miserable in my last job – never knowing when I’d be home and feeling exhausted after work. Now I have that stability of a normal workday where I can plan to do things with the kids after work,” he says.

For other middle-age laborers considering a career change, Bernie has this advice: “If it's something you're interested in, keep pursuing it. And an apprenticeship is a great way to learn as much as you can and get the most out of it. Just keep at it.”

About the Author

Catherine Ross is an advocate for career-tech education and the future of work. In her decade-plus in U.S. Manufacturing, she has directed quality accreditation programs, organized national STEM events and student competitions, and served as liaison and manager for federal workforce initiatives.

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