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Tampa apprentice works toward a brighter future in machining

SMT Machinist Apprentice Robert Falor speaks to manufacturers and educators about his apprenticeship program. EMILY L. HAY HINSDALE | Special to the Times
SMT Machinist Apprentice Robert Falor speaks to manufacturers and educators about his apprenticeship program. EMILY L. HAY HINSDALE | Special to the Times
Published Oct. 12, 2018

TAMPA – Robert Falor worked 65 hours a week to pay the bills.

He wondered how he was ever going to get ahead. He wanted more out of life and more out of a career.

Three years later, Falor is a year away from completing his apprenticeship as a machinist at Southern Manufacturing Technologies in Tampa. He's working 45 hours a week now for a comparable wage and has time again for friends and family. And his path forward?

"My future in manufacturing is unlimited," Falor said.

Speaking on Oct. 9 at the "M-PACT" Manufacturers Meeting at Southern Manufacturing, an event coordinated by the Manufacturers Alliance of Hillsborough County to connect and inform Tampa-area manufacturers, Falor described his transition into manufacturing and his thoughts on making that path smoother for future apprentices.

Falor was raised in Tampa by a businessman father and teacher mother. When he graduated from Gaither High School in 2001, he said his parents saw his options as "college — or college." He studied computer networking at Hillsborough Community College, but without clear job placement options, drifted into kitchen work. By his mid-30s, he was a head chef in a restaurant, but unsatisfied with the unrelenting schedule. Switching careers, however, required years of experience he did not have.

Southern Manufacturing president Roy Sweatman understands Falor's challenge. Sweatman apprenticed as a machinist out of high school and "worked my way to owning my own business," he said.

SMT specializes in precision machined components and assemblies for aircraft, aerospace, and defense industries. The highly specialized computerized tools in SMT's manufacturing shop operate on a piece of metal to shape it to precise specifications. It has to be perfect and it takes on-the-job knowledge to know how to operate these tools.

Finding skilled manufacturing workers, whether in the precision machine tool industry or others presents a growing challenge to the Tampa region.

Ken Jones, Economic Development manager for the Hillsborough County Economic Development Department said, "Businesses moving into our area are asking, 'What does your workforce look like? Can I get employees?'"

Ted Norman, State Director of Apprenticeship for the Florida Department of Education agreed: "Every single industry in our state is hurting for individuals for their workforce."

In Florida, apprenticeships for manufacturing jobs like Falor's are offered through the Florida Department of Education, giving support and oversight – and funding – to both apprentice and employer.

How the program functions can vary, but most follow a model similar to that of Falor. Falor is enrolled in a four-year apprentice program at SMT. He is expected to fulfill two hours per week of class work related to his field, which he completes at Pinellas Technical College in Largo.

Falor admits that he spends off time studying further. Most of his day, however, is spent on the job alongside journeyman machinists at SMT learning and practicing each tool, gaining not just experience but what Norman calls the "tribal knowledge" that can only be conveyed in action.

The knowledge that Falor most wants to pass on is his own experience changing careers and his target audience is high school students' parents.

"There's no market for all these college degrees. I wish we would have known a lot more of this [program] out of high school. Kids don't know what they want to do. I wish they would have educated our

parents more."

Pulling in a new generation of machinists isn't just a good post-high school option, it's an industry necessity. As the baby boomer generation retires, a wealth of knowledge retires with it. Falor works in a team of six; in a few years, he said, he will be the only one still working.

Falor helps lead tours of high school students through SMT, where he expects to continue as a full-time skilled precision machinist when his apprenticeship is complete. He hopes to share with them the fulfillment he finds in his new path.

"The most interesting thing I've found in this work is with all the machine knowledge, I can look at any object and tell you how it's made."

Contact Emily L. Hay Hinsdale at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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