Making manufacturing muscle

At Superbolt, a Carnegie producer of mechanical stud and bolt tensioners, plant manager William Myers has often found it frustrating to find and keep entry-level machinists to maintain his 85-employee work force at full capacity.

Glenn Skena, manager, methods engineering at Hamill Manufacturing in Trafford, has had similar problems. So has Bob Kettering, manufacturing manager at DuraMetal Products Corp. in Irwin.

“The last five years it’s been particularly noticeable,” says Kettering.

Myers says he’s had trouble getting applicants to even turn out for interviews. And he’s offered jobs to people, only to have them quit a few months later.

That may come as a surprise, especially when jobs like these pay an average of $8 to $10 an hour to start, plus benefits in many cases — and they’re available to individuals at a high school graduate level, in some cases earlier.

Manufacturing 2000, a training program that graduated its first class of machinists in 1998, has eased the situation for all three companies, bringing them better-trained and more motivated candidates than they’ve been able to draw in recent years from the vo-tech schools and the general work force.

That same model is being expanded to come to the aid of other manufacturing segments experiencing the same kinds of shortages.

A labor legacy

The region’s industrial past has left at least one significant legacy: high-wage jobs for the remaining workers in manufacturing, which still accounts for about 16 percent of private sector jobs in a 13-county area of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

According to figures provided by Manufacturing 2000, manufacturing in Allegheny County leads all categories in annual wages, with $2.8 billion wages paid. The annual salary for manufacturing segment employees is more than $40,000 annually, while the average salary for all other sectors is about $28,600.

Despite the relatively high wages paid for entry-level jobs in manufacturing, however, employers are finding it difficult to find qualified applicants. Companies point to several factors that have created a dearth of available and reliable labor. The educational system, parents and society in general are steering students toward the academic track, they say, encouraging college as a first choice.

“I don’t see a whole lot of push in the schools toward machining,” says Myers.

Moreover, the companies say, a lot of vo-tech schools have not kept up with technology, and students often perceive the machinist and tool-and-die trades as dirty work, not as a field dominated by modern CNC equipment that requires more sophisticated training to operate. And, say the business operators, vo-tech schools are too often a repository for poor academic achievers or students with disciplinary problems.

Skena points out that vocational schools, from which he used to get nearly all of his entry-level machinists, once provided a rich pool of potential employees. A local vocational school that Hamill Manufacturing works with, for instance, has a co-op program that allows students to work part-time while they go to school to prepare for a position as an entry-level machinist. This year, the school could recommend only one student out of a class of 20 to Skena for the program, a far cry from a decade ago.

“I would have had 10 kids 10 years ago,” says Skena.

As heavy industry in the region wound down, it displaced many low-skill workers. The new manufacturing economy, in contrast, requires employees who are better trained, with more exacting skills than were once required in heavy industry.

For the new skilled laborer, the emphasis is much more on skill than on labor. The pool of available workers, however, has shrunk.

New Century approach

The success of Manufacturing 2000 has led to the creation of New Century Careers, a nonprofit umbrella organization that will include the machinist training program and training to qualify individuals in welding and in electronics assembly.

“Manufacturing 2000 embodies the employment goals of businesses and public officials — to attract skilled workers and keep them in the region,” says Paul Anselmo, executive director of the program.

The manufacturers see a different kind of candidate coming out of Manufacturing 2000.

“The group you are dealing with is post-high school,” says Skena.

Most are a bit more mature, many have tried college and found it wasn’t for them or need to get a full-time job that offers a stable future. The screening process culls those with the most aptitude and places them in the appropriate training program at no cost to the applicant.

The hiring companies pay the program $1,250 for each employee they hire permanently, a fee the manufacturers say is well worth it if they get an effective employee.

One strength of Manufacturing 2000, says Kettering, is that it creates a stronger, more direct link between training and employment. The process identifies, screens and trains applicants, then places and develops skill-based talent in partnership with academic and vocational institutions. DuraMetal Products has hired two of the program’s graduates and expects to hire a third.

But while the model has worked well for the machinist trade, what are its prospects for success in the other fields?

The employers appear to have high hopes.

“Given a little bit of time, I think they’re going to be pushing out some quality entry-level people,” says Myers.

And that’s from someone who’s been there.

How to reach: New Century Careers, (412) 258-6620

Ray Marano ([email protected]) is associate editor of SBN magazine.