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Manufacturers: It’s time to take charge of your destiny

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Partnerships are in place, awareness has spread, interest is growing – and now it’s time for manufacturers to take it to the next level.

Manufacturers must do more to plug the skills gap and worker shortage that threatens the industry.

“It’s time for industry to get involved. You have to be proactive,” Jack Pfunder, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Resource Center, said at the recent 13th annual Manufacturing Summit in Bethlehem.

They can do so by visiting schools, hosting plant tours, sharing interns and serving on school advisory boards.

The region is seeing a growing interest in young people connecting with careers in manufacturing as an increasing number of programs have strived to change the perception of what these jobs are like today.

For example, the MRC “What’s So Cool about Manufacturing?” video contest drew 900 people to its awards ceremony.

The annual contest pairs middle schoolers with manufacturers in the Greater Lehigh Valley, with students making videos of workers creating products inside local facilities. Each year, the event attracts more students and has since expanded beyond the Valley to across Pennsylvania.

Additionally, internships and apprenticeships for manufacturers are popping up all over, and programs in science, technology, engineering and math are increasing as well, spreading awareness about the jobs available in these sectors.

“It’s a good start, but the bottom line, it’s not going to get us there,” Pfunder said at the summit, held at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks and hosted by the Manufacturing Council of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

‘DIRECT CONDUIT’

Tim Rushton, executive director of the Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville, spoke at the summit about the importance of manufacturers getting involved in technical schools.

“We are a direct conduit,” he said. “We serve a consortium of students. You are integral to our mission. We welcome you into our school.”

With 2,800 students, LCTI is seeing strong demand for their skills, he said.

“I couldn’t imagine being 18 years old and having multiple companies bid on me,” Rushton said, noting that’s the type of demand the school is seeing from employers.

REACH OUT TO SCHOOLS

Jim Kester, a Parkland High School teacher, is involved in Project Lead the Way, an eight-course program for grades nine through 12 that connects students with industry, focusing on skills in engineering, computer science and biomedical science. The national program is in thousands of schools and can be for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

At the summit, Kester said he has employees from Langan Engineering and Spillman Farmer Architects visit the school and is open to having manufacturers do the same. Officials from Langan and Spillman Farmer reached out to see if they could bring people in to talk about their industry.

Kester said he knows students who would be a perfect match for manufacturers.

“I have an ability to play matchmaker; there will be some kids that are better suited to industry,” Kester said.

HAVE TEACHERS, WILL TRAVEL

At Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, students can start in a program that provides them with the base level of manufacturing skills that creates a seamless entry into a bachelor’s program, said Terri Keefe, dean at the college.

The school also has internships, apprenticeships and works closely with the Workforce Investment Board, she added.

She encouraged employers to bring in existing employees to upskill them at LCCC and said the school also can go to the worksite to train workers.

MANAGING THE HIRING NEEDS

Companies have different levels of needs, said Christopher Gaylo, director of the Advanced Technology Center at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem Township.

Employers need to manage all three needs, from acute, critical ones to short- and long-term needs, he said.

“The academics need to provide creative solutions to the needs,” Gaylo said.

He suggested that industry could provide adjuncts and that students would be very responsive to them. He also said manufacturers could put their names on equipment to be used in the classroom, offer tours of their facilities and also tour schools.

SHARING INTERNS

Some manufacturers say it’s taking a lot longer to hire.

“That skills gap has accelerated,” said Carlos Valdes, human resources director at Victaulic in Forks Township. “There are certain positions that are taking 130 days [to fill].”

When these positions can’t be filled, things can’t get done, he added.

One solution Victaulic is using involves having a professor from Northampton Community College to serve as a training manager.

Victaulic also has shared interns with other companies but has lost some of those students, Valdes said, noting that sometimes those valued, skilled interns go to other companies competing for talent.

MULTIPLE MACHINES

A company that employs 150, Bracalente Manufacturing Group in Trumbauersville also loses interns, said Brenda Diehl, human resource manager.

She said there used to be a time when machine operators could read newspapers during their shifts because they were only operating one machine. Now, often one employee is operating multiple machines.

“It’s hard because you get spread a little thin,” Diehl said. “One person is running three to four machines at a time.”

HELPING SCHOOLS WITH ADVICE, FUNDS

Diehl spoke about the importance of serving on the occupational advisory boards of local schools because it helps manufacturers drive the students’ education.

Schools also need help financially, and she said her company has provided scholarships to local technical schools.

“Our median age is 50,” Diehl said. “In the next 10 years, we are going to have a turnover, and we don’t see youth coming into the sector.”

IN-HOUSE TRAINING

Having a rotational internship program also has helped B. Braun Medical Inc., which has a manufacturing facility in Hanover Township, Lehigh County.

The company started getting supervisors involved and providing mentors for the internship program, said Joe Hammond, director of the Hanover Township plant.

B. Braun also upgraded facilities so employees could gain new skills. Many employees do not have the desire or time to go back to school, so B. Braun created the training in-house, he noted.

“We invested in our own electro-mechanical lab,” Hammond said. “Now we can also focus on specific tasks that were needed. Now we are providing it in the company.”

COMPENSATION, CULTURE

With employment so low, manufacturers need to either promote employees or take them from other companies, Diehl said.

Making compensation adjustments also is important in retaining employees, and Valdes said Victaulic has made more of them the past two years.

It’s also important to create a welcoming culture in which employees are treated well and want to stay.

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