Julie Ross has been running machine tools for 11 years, but she still was a little nervous to learn CNC machining.

Julie Ross has been running machine tools for 11 years, but she still was a little nervous to learn CNC machining.

Computer numeric control, or CNC, has become the dominant factory tool in modern shops. But local manufacturers say there’s a shortage of qualified workers — even as efforts to grow the specialized work force are gaining traction.

Today, running a CNC machine involves a basic comfort with computers, understanding of blueprints and a command of simple math.

“I graduated high school,” Ross said. “You don’t need a college degree to do this. You just use your basic math. ... I was scared when I came down here, though.”

Forest City Gear puts a premium on the latest equipment, spending about $5 million last year on new machines, said Jared Lyford, manufacturing supervisor for hobbing, shaping and grinding. And because it is building all the gears for NASA’s Mars rover, the company doesn’t skimp on technology upgrades.

Al Ryan started working for Forest City two months ago after more than 30 years of making gears on manual machines.

“It’s a lot easier,” Ryan said. “The quality and the precision of the equipment, it gives you a lot higher comfort factor.”

The demand for machinists with CNC skills led several job-training groups to launch a fast-track certification program last year. Techworks gives a crash course in blueprint reading, shop math and basic machine operation, said Ed Van Vleet, program manager.

“With the program that we do with the county and with Rock River Training, (Illinois) Workforce Development, we also work with (graduates) to help them find employment,” he said. “And we’ve done a pretty doggone good job at it.”

Nate Legue can be reached at (815) 987-1346 or nlegue@rrstar.com.