Northeast Ohio manufacturer encourages engineering grads to get their hands dirty
Bowden Manufacturing in Willoughby doesn’t have machinists working on its production floor cranking out gun and aerospace parts all day.
It has “manufacturing engineers.”
Bowden’s unusual Next Gen Manufacturing program recruits engineering students and new engineering graduates — people who many would consider overqualified — to work with Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines and other heavy equipment. And Bowden somehow succeeds year after year, even often scheduling new graduates on second and third shift.
That’s because Bowden treats the job as a two-year training program. Bowden President Andrew McCartney said that fresh graduates may have a degree, but “don’t really know anything, practically speaking, about what to do on the shop floor.”
If the new engineers are willing to get their hands dirty for two years, Bowden will give them a real-world look at how manufacturing works as a companion to their classroom learning.
“They emerge from the couple of years plus of being here extremely confident that they understand how things get made,” McCartney said. “And they understand the practical application of what they learned in school and how it relates and translates to real world manufacturing.”
The hands-on part of the job appealed to Adam Stark, who graduated from Cleveland State University with a mechanical engineering degree in 2019. He liked it much more than sitting in a cubicle designing parts or products only on a screen. Stark, who calls himself a “do-it-yourselfer,” wanted something tangible.
“I had interviewed and applied to a couple of different places and some of it was really just desk oriented,” Stark said. “I didn't really ever get to see whatever I was working on in person. So I liked that it was not just conceptual (at Bowden), but right there in front of me.”
Cleveland State engineering student Leah Daher said Bowden’s approach jumped out to her at a career fair at school in the fall of 2022.
“They said that it was a hand-on internship, which I thought was really important to start off with, just to get a good baseline for all the processes that go into engineering and mass manufacturing,” Daher said. “If I ever want to design anything in the future that is worthwhile, I need to know how machines work and know what materials do, and what tools do, and everything that goes into making a part and assembling it with other parts.”
She said the work has “completely changed the way I look at engineering” and her classes.
“Before, I was kind of just studying material for a test, you know, to pass a test.” she said. “And now you're kind of looking at these classes, like, ‘Oh, this is what I'm doing at my job. … And I need to, like, pay attention to this and make sure that I'm really, like, honing in on these skills, because it is going to be really important down the line.’”
Bowden, founded in 1952, started recruiting from colleges in 2016 as a way to keep positions filled and also upgrade talent at the company. In a typical year, it will hire about 20 part-time college student interns from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University and the University of Akron.
Then it hires a half dozen graduates as full-time employees at hourly rates that will pay about $50,000 annually at first, increasing to $70,000 over the course of the program.
“I think the best fit kids for our program are the ones that want to get dirty, learn how to make stuff and yet still have some intellectual horsepower.” McCartney said. “It's the kids that work on their own cars, they change their own oil. …If a motor at their house stops working, they tear it apart and put it back together. It's those kinds of kids that have a practical mechanical aptitude.”
Bowden interviewers will often hand job applicants a part to see if they will want to look at it and see how it works, or just set it down.
“That's a huge red flag in our world when we hold a part in front of them, and they don't want to touch it. because they want to be on a computer in a cubicle all day,” he said. “That's not our zone at all.
McCartney concedes that calling employees “manufacturing engineers” is a bit of a public relations move, since engineer sounds much better at cocktail parties than machinist. That’s often more for parents who want to brag about their children than for the recruits. But he said the combination of study and experience makes them better engineers.
He’ll start new hires out with learning the machines and how to operate them to make a part. They will see what shapes the machines can make, how much accuracy matters and how much stress metal can take.
Later, he’ll have them make a part entirely on their own, from designing it, to programming the machines, to making it.
Daniel Morrison, who stayed on after the program as the company’s quality manager, said he appreciated the ramping up of challenges.
“It helped me go from an entry-level position, say, as an operator to being an entry level engineer, which means I’m working with the operators, but I'm also starting to get my own projects,” he recalled. “You're taking that want-to-learn and that want-to-understand and applying it to these everyday scenarios, instead of ‘hit a button, hit a button, check a part, hit a button…’”
There’s another big mindset difference between Bowden and other companies. Many companies balk at training new employees that won’t stay long because the company will see little return on its investment. Bowden isn’t bothered by its recruits leaving for other jobs in a couple of years.
McCartney, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, said constantly training a churn of new employees was standard in the Navy. And he prefers to “catch kids on a rise,” like college football or basketball coaches who recruit star athletes knowing they will leave to play professionally after a year or two. Or small colleges that hire young, up-and-coming coaches who want to coach at major schools as soon as they can.
“We're starting with what I think most people in our industry would admit is kind of a stud,” he said. “They’ve got a four-year engineering degree, which means they've got certain intellectual capacity that is pretty rare for newbies coming into a company”
After two years, these workers might stay on at Bowden and advance. Or the company will happily help them find work with another company where they can marry their new practical knowledge with their degree.
“I tell them, ‘Listen, if you feel like you've stopped learning, come talk to me. One, we'll either give you more to learn or, two, we’ll help you find another spot outside the building.’ I'm more than happy to take somebody who has accelerated beyond us and help them find a gig on the outside.”