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Officials tour Ocean Spray, seek ways to connect students with skilled careers

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Ocean Spray Cranberries facility in Upper Macungie Township. (Contributed)
Ocean Spray Cranberries facility in Upper Macungie Township. (Contributed)

The need for skilled workers continues to be a challenge that manufacturers throughout the state grapple with, and one that can clearly be felt in the Greater Lehigh Valley.

As the region continues its growth trajectory as a strong manufacturing hub, this need is becoming more apparent.

It was one insight that officials addressed during a tour of the Ocean Spray Cranberries facility in Upper Macungie Township on Friday. Eileen Cipriani, deputy secretary for workforce development at the state Department of Labor & Industry, participated in the event as part of the Gov. Tom Wolf administration’s “Jobs that Pay” tour.

In October, state officials tour manufacturing sites throughout the state to celebrate Manufacturing Month and to put the spotlight on careers in STEM (science, technology, math and engineering).

“We’ve been all over the state visiting manufacturing facilities,” Cipriani said. “What I hear everywhere is, ‘I can’t find skilled workers.’ ”

Tim Noud, plant director for Ocean Spray, said his company is looking for engaged employees, as the plant’s equipment is complex. He particularly needs industrial maintenance workers in the skilled trades, and they are difficult to find.

Computer skills are needed since the equipment is high-tech, agreed Teri Thomas, human resources manager for Ocean Spray. In its manufacturing process, the company uses blenders, and that requires a certain skill set, she added.

Having opened in 2014, the 300,000-square-foot-Ocean Spray facility in Upper Macungie has 197 employees that work four shifts, Thomas said. The company needs help finding high school students who are prepared to work as part of a team, she said.

While high school educations can be sufficient as a starting point for working at Ocean Spray, the attitudinal piece, the work ethic, also is important. The ability to work with a team is crucial, Thomas said.

“We have an apprenticeship program; it’s working well,” Thomas said, adding that the program is costly for the company.

TRAINING AT LCCC

The company has two employees that it takes out of its headcount so they can get trained as maintenance technicians at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville.

They return to work and are able to demonstrate the skills they learned. The maintenance department is where it’s really needed, she said.

The state Department of Labor & Industry is promoting eight to 10 apprenticeship programs per month at companies throughout the state, Cipriani said.

“The model is really taking off, so it’s a way to fill those skills gaps,” she said. “There will be some funding opportunities we will announce.”

Cipriani said this would take the form of grants.

Thomas said Ocean Spray also promoted six people from the maintenance department to engineering, which creates opportunities for advancement.

From a hiring standpoint, the company often looks for attitude first and skills second, particularly for such jobs as a machine operator, Thomas said.

CHANGING THE IMAGE

Ocean Spray also partnered with local schools for the annual “What’s so Cool about Manufacturing?” video contest, which helps get younger students interested in pursuing manufacturing careers.

“We are really working hard in that space in changing the perception of manufacturing, to have more people joining your workforce,” Cipriani said.

A contributing factor to a lack of skills could be that fewer high school students are working while going to school. So, they are lacking experience and basic skill sets for working.

Ocean Spray also offers family day, a time for employees to bring in family members to work so they can see what they do, and Noud said this is very valuable.

Other state and local officials from the Department of Labor & Industry and the Workforce Investment Board shared thoughts on their efforts to connect students with manufacturing careers.

ROOM TO GROW

As a relatively new plant, Ocean Spray has advanced equipment, including robotic devices that load pallets in specific patterns and one robotic arm that can handle processing two production lines.

The clean and brightly lit facility has no warehouse space and little storage. As soon as products are loaded on pallets, workers gather them on forklifts and load them into trucks.

Ocean’s Spray’s juice products are manufactured, researched and tested, bottled and packaged at the site and shipped to an off-site warehouse for distribution along major parts of the East Coast. The local site supplies 40 percent of its domestic market.

The company occupies 44 acres of land in Upper Macungie and can add 100,000 square feet of production space, as well as a 250,000 square foot warehouse. There are no immediate plans for that, Noud said.

At its Upper Maungie facility, Ocean Spray could produce roughly 40 billion cases of product per year, he said.

“We have world-class equipment, Noud said. “The differentiating factor is our workforce.”

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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