WNC student filling employment gap

Gil Tapia embodies today’s CNC, or computer numerical control, machine shops — neat and well groomed, smart and ambitious. From his neatly tucked in CGI polo shirt to his perfectly trimmed hair, he represents the precision and quality his employer is known for.

Tapia, 24, recently passed his probation period at CGI Inc., Advanced Products for Robotics and Automation. His day begins with reviewing the production schedule to see which jobs will run that day. He reviews blueprints to interpret the work and develops an inspection plan. He will inspect today’s production run for quality and accuracy with microscopes and precision measuring tools. If the parts meet CGI’s rigorous quality standards, he’ll sign off on them so the material can move on to the next process.

“The beauty of having a set of skills is if I lost my job tomorrow, I know I will get another,” he said.

Tapia said he never imagined doing this kind of work. His family moved to Mexico when he was in junior high school. When he turned 18, Tapia left high school without graduating and set off to America to make his fortune in construction.

Without a high school diploma, Tapia found himself earning less than he wanted. He left construction and found a warehouse job.

“I was working in a dead-end job in shipping and receiving, lifting 100-pound boxes,” he said. “One day I got sent down to the machine shop and I liked it. I asked how I could work in the shop. They told me I needed college classes like blue printing and machine tool technology.”

Tapia went to Western Nevada College and earned his GED. Then he took a few machine tool technology classes. He went back to his employer and said he wanted to work in the machine shop. His boss told him, “Sorry, we need a guy with experience.”

Tapia started networking. He heard about an apprenticeship through his CNC teacher at WNC, and took a pay cut to begin.

He worked there for a year building his skill set, moving up through the ranks as he took classes. Six months ago he landed the job at CGI.

CGI reimburses employees for education and tools.

“It’s as much about people as it is about business,” Michael Batrich, CGI’s quality assurance manager and Tapia’s supervisor, said. “We’ve got people who have been here for 35 years. When the company, founded in 1967, moved to Nevada from California in 1990 15 people moved with it.”

CGI makes precision gears and gearboxes and designs and manufactures precision components and sub-assemblies for a wide variety of applications across multiple industries. For example, CGI’s planetary gear heads are found in the water fountains at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, pharmacy pill dispensers, robotic surgical equipment, Predator and Raptor drones, personal robotics and orthopedic tools.

“We’re not just in one niche market,” Batrich said. “When one market suffers, we have others. We don’t lay people off in the typical surge and purge employment style of other industries.”

Batrich said CGI has 82 employees, and with year over year growth, CGI and other manufacturers in the area have jobs that go unfilled due to the need for skilled, experienced CNC machinists. The manufacturers along the corridor on Arrowhead Drive are a cohesive tight group when it comes to finding employees. They’ve engaged seven employment agencies and are looking to do some job shadowing to help bring students on board to give them the experience they need in order to grow within the company. Without enough qualified workers, they will have to begin searching over state lines to fill necessary jobs.

“These CNC jobs have job security,” he said. “There are always more jobs than people to fill them. It’s not finding capital to buy the $400,000 machine that’s the problem; it’s finding the people to run it.”

Desired skill sets for CNC machinist jobs include basic math and science and blueprint reading, as well as a can-do attitude. At CGI, Batrich said, people work their way up.

“One of our employees started out in a less skilled position on the mills and has worked his way into the engineering team,” he said. “Another drill press operator has become a part owner in the company. The advancement opportunities are all there.”

CGI has machines from 1940s they have rebuilt and reused — workhorses Batrich calls them — alongside half-million dollar machines that have reduced production time from 40 minutes to three minutes. The job is not just pushing buttons on machines; it also involves programming the machines’ computers, set up and repair.

“It’s not your 1950s idea of a machine shop where it’s greasy and dirty,” he said. “When I walk in to the plant in the morning, I smell Pine Sol, not grease. Between shifts the plant and equipment are cleaned and are ready to go for the next shift.”

A great living can be made in CNC machining. Batrich said if you apply yourself you can start around $40,000 with a degree and some experience, and turn that into a six-figure income over time.

“It’s why we support our employees taking classes,” Michael said. “They improve their lives and it gives us a competitive edge over foreign precision shops.”

Tapia has been working in the industry now for two years — pursing his associate degree in machine tool technology at WNC. With working full time, he has maybe another year or two until he graduates, but in the meantime, he said he is grateful to be working in his field in a job with great benefits, great people and growth potential.

“I’ve never been laid off or missed a day of work,” he said. “I’m sure others would like to do this work, they just don’t know about it. I didn’t even know it existed — I went to the machine shop by chance that day. I told myself I’m not going to be young forever and I need to get started.”

Tapia’s advice for those just starting out — be prepared to start at the bottom. He took a $3 an hour pay cut in the beginning and in two years has more than doubled his original rate of pay. Be persistent and stay optimistic.

“Just start,” he said. “And don’t give up.”


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