As manufacturing day approaches on Oct. 4, officials are working to highlight the growth of the industry in the Lehigh Valley and ensure a fresh pipeline of workers is in place.
A media tour hosted by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 showcased several of the state’s advanced food and beverage manufacturing facilities and emphasized ways to draw attention to careers in the industry.
Jack Pfunder, president and CEO of Manufacturers Resource Center in Bethlehem, said a recently issued “Skill Up” grant from the DCED allowed MRC to partner with the DaVinci Science Center, the Lehigh Career & Technical Institute and Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board to bring a national manufacturing career campaign to the state.
In time for manufacturing day, the “Dream It. Do It. Pennsylvania” website at www.dreamitdoitpa.com will introduce manufacturing opportunities to students in grades kindergarten to eighth grade.
Also, more than 600 Lehigh Valley students will visit manufacturing sites for plant tours, and partners in “The Dream It. Do It” initiative will host an eighth-grade manufacturing video contest for students in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
Pfunder said the grant for this contest could be replicated across the state and possibly the region to help push for greater awareness of manufacturing careers.
“This is the battle that we have to fight right now,” Pfunder said. The image of manufacturing and technical schools needs to be changed to ensure an existing pipeline of workers is available when Baby Boomers retire in the next few years.
According to the National Association of Manufacturers, there are 600,000 jobs across the nation that are not filled because employers cannot find talent. As a result, some companies are understaffed or leaving the region, a problem that could find its way to Eastern Pennsylvania if initiatives are not in place to grow talent, Pfunder said.
“It is a huge problem in manufacturing today,” he said. “Where is the talent to keep those jobs?”
Though efforts are underway to attract and retain manufacturing jobs, food manufacturing appears to be a growing segment of the industry, particularly in Berks County.
Pamela Shupp, vice president of Greater Reading Economic Partnership, described Berks County as a food region of Pennsylvania and highlighted several success stories.
With several pretzel bakeries, Reading has been known as “Pretzel City,” and Berks County produces one-third of all pretzels baked in the United States, she said.
Godiva Chocolates also are manufactured in Reading and Unique Pretzels is under construction with an $8.5 million upgrade. Birdsboro Kosher Farms recently reopened a kosher plant, and Saucony Creek Brewing Co. in Kutztown is one major beverage manufacturer that’s experienced growth, particularly with its use of social media, she added.
The county’s strong electrical grid and large agricultural acreage are two aspects that attract food and beverage manufacturers to the region.
To also bring younger people to the manufacturing field, Northampton Community College in Bethlehem is partnering with companies such as Just Born to train and educate new and existing employees.
Mark Erickson, president of NCC, spoke about the college’s efforts in meeting employer demands for new manufacturing technology skills.
One opportunity the college offers is credit programs in electromechanical engineering which train people in automation processes and provide food and beverage manufacturing companies with employees qualified to work in robotics, material handling and other computer-controlled techniques.
Tours of two Lehigh Valley manufacturers showcased how each company produces, packages and ships its product from one facility, all while upgrading technology to make processes faster while reducing waste and recycling materials.
As an example, Just Born Inc. in Bethlehem, which recently became the 10th largest candy manufacturer in the country, recently became entirely “land-fill free.” It has been investing in equipment upgrades that make their processes faster and, like many manufacturers, is focused on automation.
“It is up to us to invest in the technology to make it easier for people,” said Ross Born, co-CEO of Just Born. Investing in automation allows employees to work smarter, he added.
Equipment upgrades at Nestle Waters have pushed the company to boost its production volume to about 65 million cases this year, said Michael Franceschetti, factory manager for Nestle Pure Life East, which has a manufacturing plant in Breinigsville.
The company also is working on minimizing its packaging and reducing the half-liter bottle size to get it lighter than its 8.99 grams of plastic.