Labor Day: The machinists

By SUSAN KANTOR/For The News-Gazette

This is part of a two-day look at the trades in East Central Illinois.

Keith Parrish grew up in an era when your dad made sure you had a trade.

"My dad was a working man. He was a plumber. And he said, 'If you do anything, I want you to have a trade because that way I know you're always going to be able to make a living,'" Parrish said.

Parrish found machining and stuck with it. He is supervisor of the Mechanical Science and Engineering Machine Shop at the University of Illinois, but his love for machining began in high school. In the early 1970s, Parrish's high school in DeLand started a program in which students would go to Decatur Area Vocational Center for half of the school day.

"I just walked into a machine shop, and I thought all the machines were cool, and I liked working with my hands. I went to two years of school there, and just graduated from that with probably a decent idea of how to be a good machinist. That's how it all started."

Parrish worked at two shops in Champaign-Urbana, and although he never went through an official apprenticeship program, he worked with a journeyman machinist and learned on the job. He was hired at the UI to work in the Materials Research Lab machine shop in 1993. He worked at a few shops across campus and became supervisor at his current shop five years ago.

Tim Prunkard was also hired as a machinist with the UI and has been friends with Parrish for most of that time, but followed a different path to this career. He graduated from high school when he was 17. With no idea what he wanted to do, he decided to look for a trade. He started working in a factory in Danville and saw a post on a bulletin board for a machinist apprenticeship. He earned his union card and worked in several factories and shops before coming to the UI 16 years ago. Like Parrish, he worked at a few shops on campus and then became supervisor at the Civil and Environmental Engineering machine shop.

"I worked with my hands a lot, worked on junk all my life. Then when I was old enough to drive, junk cars, and so I had a little bit of self-training there because we didn't have money to buy things that we wanted. You had to work on something if you wanted a ride or you wanted to drive, you had to work on everything that you had," Prunkard said.

Both machinists have similar jobs as supervisors. Students bring them sketches of research design projects, and they discuss how to build the machine and how much it will cost. Prunkard's shop is the biggest machine shop on campus, where full-size and scale models of buildings are built and materials are tested.

Technology has somewhat changed the job, but Parrish thinks the fundamentals are still key.

"The basics have gotten lost. From what I've seen of younger machinists, it's really difficult for me to hire people for this shop. The main reason is the younger machinists have lost the basics as far as how do you take a piece of metal and start making a part out of it."

Computer numerical control, or CNC, machines were practically unheard of 30 years ago, but they are now prevalent in the trade. While machinists like Parrish and Prunkard learned to do the job manually, CNC machines are part of the younger machinists' training. Today, machinists have to be computer-savvy.

"They're more used to getting a program that's already been written, putting a block of steel in. Somebody's already figured out how to make it for them," Parrish said. "Give me a piece of iron or steel, and I'll figure out how to make the part."

CNC machines allow machinists to work faster and make complicated parts simple.

"It's hard to write a program for just one little part. It's faster if you can just go ahead and build it – if you're good," Parrish said.

Parrish and Prunkard were involved in starting an apprenticeship program for machinists at the UI.

"I'm an old guy and realized that some trades are dying out, machine shops especially," Prunkard said. "Technology has created management to think that everyone can be a machine operator or machine operators are more efficient. I believe, because of my knowledge, that being a machinist is more valuable."

Prunkard said it is difficult to hire people who know a little bit of everything about being a machinist.

"My apprentices will know how to sharpen their own cutting tools and sharpen their own drill bits and they will know speeds and feeds on machine ability. Those are things that I think are not taught anymore because of CNC machines. It is all done for you in an office somewhere. You just plug in the program and run the part," Prunkard said.

Don Marrow and Jamar Brown are in the third and final year of the apprentice program in Prunkard's shop.

Both grew up in an era where parents didn't make sure you had a trade. Neither aspired to be machinists. Now that they are in the program, they have found careers for life.

Marrow, 28, received an associate's degree in law enforcement from Danville Area Community College. He wanted a safer career when he started a family, so he worked as a salesman in Danville for five years. After being laid off, he started working in the shop as part-time help and was hired as an apprentice when the program started.

"I just kind of fell into it. I enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot. It's something different. You're not doing the same thing all the time. It's an enjoyable job. You come here and do your work and you feel like when you're done, you've accomplished something. It's a good place to be," Marrow said.

Brown, 27, thought he would be either a teacher or a business owner when he was in high school. After graduating from Centennial High School in Champaign, though, Brown didn't know what he wanted to do, so he worked until he found something he liked. After working in jobs ranging from hotels to snow plows, Brown found his way in at the UI by working nights as a janitor. He wanted to be promoted to a driver for Facilities and Services, but a supervisor recommended him for the apprenticeship.

"I was already interested in what happened in this building because as a janitor, I cleaned this building sometimes. And just the work and the size of the experiments always fascinated me, so once I had the chance to be in here, obviously I jumped at that opportunity," Brown said.

Brown and Marrow spend their days at the Civil and Environmental Engineering machine shop, learning the trade from men who have spent their careers as machinists. They also take classes at Parkland College to supplement their training.

Neither knew much about machining at the beginning of their apprenticeships. Marrow had taken shop classes in high school in Georgetown, but Brown had never taken any sort of technical class. Both agree that having trade-related classes in high school would have helped them and could help students choose careers.

"They don't have trade classes in high school, so how does a kid know that they want to do this job or not if they've never had any experience with it out of high school? We used to have shop classes and welding classes and all that in school, and I think a lot of them are just kind of doing away with those programs," Marrow said.

Marrow said he thinks the mind-set is different now for when people are leaving high school. They want business jobs.

"That's the wonderful part about being in any trade. No matter what trade you're in, it gives you the confidence to do that stuff on your own. I feel like if I didn't have that, I would be lost. And I kind of feel sorry for those who are not able to experience that, the schools that have done away with those classes," Marrow said.

Brown said people need options other than going to college or working in a fast-food restaurant.

"If it's not taught in the schools, and like myself, if no one around you is doing it, then how do you even find out those jobs are even available? I just have to say I was really blessed to be in the right place at the right time because it had absolutely nothing to do with me. If I had seen this job in the newspaper, I would have never ever applied for it. Ever. It had absolutely nothing to do with me. I think if it was in school, it would have been an option to me if it was available," Brown said.

Parrish, Prunkard and both apprentices are confident that the trade is not going away.

Marrow said he expects the number of people going into the machinist trade to decrease because machines will continue to replace some manual-labor jobs.

"People are always going to need stuff made. Even if they keep coming out with these computer-controlled machines, somebody has still got to run them. Somebody has still got to program them. And not everything can be done by a computer. We're always going to have to be around to do this type of work. If this shop wasn't here, there would be no Civil Engineering Department because nobody would be able to make the things that they're testing here," Marrow said.

As long as there is research, machinists who know the trade will be needed.

"I think it's a dying art, it's a dying case that's going to be necessary," Prunkard said. "I believe that every trade needs apprentices. I don't know why ours is really dying, but technology and money, efficiency, and not being able to prove in a conversation that I can be more efficient than a machine operator."

Parrish was optimistic about the future of machinists and their shops.

"I have a good feeling that 20 years from now, there's still going to be machine shops. We went through a phase where they were saying that we were all going to go to computer simulations, do all the research on computers. They have found out since that the results are not always like pure, physical testing, so that aspect helps us."

And Brown has found something he enjoyed enough to make it a career.

"I prayed for something that was in the days, no nights, no weekends, and I got it," he said. "I guess this is where I'm supposed to be for now. I do see myself making this a career. But who knows what life will end up throwing at me. I want to be here, so as long as they'll have me, I'll stay."

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