Drive to attract skilled manufacturing workers is stronger than ever. Is it working?

Ask almost anyone in the manufacturing industry and they’ll tell you that the need for skilled workers has been their No. 1 problem for some time – and it is reaching a critical point.

A massive effort has been underway for the last several years to recruit more young people into the skilled trades and into careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

But many manufacturers are saying more needs to be done to counter the trends that got them to a critical point.

Those trends include a decades-old push for students to earn college degrees as the ticket to quality jobs and a decline in the number of students learning vocational and technical skills

Couple that with the low unemployment rate and baby boomers beginning to retire in large numbers and things started looking grim for those trying to hire skilled industrial workers.

A CALL FOR SKILLS

For more than seven years, manufacturing industry leaders, educators and government agencies have been working to improve the image of manufacturing and STEM careers and to get more students to pursue them.

“There used to be a stigma about professions in manufacturing,” said State Rep. Ryan Mackenzie (R-Lehigh/Berks) an advocate for workforce development. “There was just the perception that was out there.”

Efforts have been growing across the Lehigh Valley and state to answer what industrial leaders say is a desperate need for workers with skills such as machining and welding.

“It’s hard to find people with the right skills,” said Dick Bus, president of ATAS International, a metal wall and roofing manufacturer in Upper Macungie Township. “We can place an ad in the paper and no one comes in.”

STARTING EARLY

A prime example of manufacturing recruitment efforts is Dream It. Do It. PA, which was launched in 2012. It aims to show young people what kind of careers they could find in manufacturing.

“We started this just when the U.S. was pulling out of the recession. There were these companies that wanted to expand and grow but they couldn’t find machinists,” said Jack Pfunder, president and CEO of the Manufacturer’s Resource Center of the Lehigh Valley, which founded the program.

Dream It. Do It. PA’s signature event is the annual “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing” video contest. Now in its sixth year, the contest takes place around the state.

Much of the emphasis has simply been getting the word out to young people that there are interesting, good-paying jobs in the manufacturing industry, said Pfunder.

“There are some middle school kids who just had no idea what a manufacturing job looked like,” Pfunder said. “It wasn’t on their radar.”

He said there has definitely been an impact on schools, some of which were considering dropping some tech programs due to lack of interest. They now seeing renewed interest.

He gave Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Schnecksville as an example. He noted that when the Dream It. Do It. PA initiative started, 254 students were taking part in the school’s seven STEM-related programs. Over the next two years enrollment grew to 425.

At Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School, two students were signed up for machining classes at the time the initiative began. Next year there will be 35.

OTHER EFFORTS

While “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” is a high-profile event, it’s just one small cog in a range of initiatives designed to impart the skills young people need to land quality manufacturing jobs at a time when they’re just starting to think about their lives after school.

The Initiatives include such efforts as Manufacturing Day, a national celebration of modern manufacturing, held on the first Friday in October; Lafayette Career Tracks, which gives students an inside perspective on a particular industry; Lehigh University Summer Engineering Institute, a four-week summer residential program of intensive classroom study and research; and The Dream Team, which sends younger manufacturing professionals into schools to talk to students about their careers.

Meanwhile, manufacturers haven’t been standing by waiting for others to solve the problem. Many have taken up their own efforts to recruit skilled workers.

Victaulic, a manufacturer of pipe fittings in Forks Township, participates in many of the existing initiatives and has crafted some of its own

Tim Martin, director of Victaulic Inc.’s Lehigh Valley operations, said the company has tried non-traditional recruiting efforts, such as setting up a recruitment table at the PPL Center during Lehigh Valley Phantoms hockey games in Allentown.

He said the games are a good place to find young people who may be thinking about their careers and a different, fun way to reach them.

ARE EFFORTS WORKING?

Colin McEvoy, spokesman for the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., said anecdotally he’s heard from some manufacturers that are starting to see applicants with better skills.

“I can’t quantify that we’ve had ‘this many students entering manufacturing,’ but the feedback is that these programs are bearing fruit … but there is still a gap,” McEvoy said.

One company seeing a difference is Follett Corp., a manufacturer of ice-making systems in Forks Township.

“It’s not double digits, but were not having as much of a problem finding applicants with basic mechanical skills,” said James Adams, continuous improvement manager at Follett. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and eight to 10 years ago we had a much larger fallout rate of applicants who did lack those basic skills.”

Some are still waiting to see the initiatives bear fruit.

“Victaulic has not seen an obvious impact … but we’ve been making a concerted effort for about the past five years, and expect to see an impact in the next few to come,” Martin said.

ATAS International was one of the original seven companies to participate in the “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing” initiative.

Bus said he can’t say he’s gotten direct hires as a result of the company’s participation in such efforts, but he sees the overall trend heading in the right direction.

“Looking at the workforce, we’re seeing more younger people than we ever have,” he said.

WORTH IT

No one disputes that the effort put into developing interest and skills in manufacturing has been worth it.

“We are in a better position than in other parts of the state,” said Mackenzie.

Now, he said, it’s important to advance efforts that are already underway and coordinate them statewide.

That’s why he’s come out in support of the Governor’s recent executive order calling for the formation of the Keystone Economic Development and Workforce Command Center, an effort that brings together stakeholders in workforce development, including representatives from business and labor.

“We want businesses to succeed in Pennsylvania and to set up shop here because of our highly skilled workforce,” Mackenzie said. “However, we also want to help current and future workers succeed and find rewarding and high-earning careers.”

Stacy Wescoe
Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4104. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

LVB Business Events

Business Growth Symposium

Thursday, June 13, 2019
Business Growth Symposium

2019 Health Care Symposium

Thursday, August 01, 2019
2019 Health Care Symposium

2019 CFO of the Year Awards

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
2019 CFO of the Year Awards

2019 Fastest Growing Companies Awards

Wednesday, October 23, 2019
2019 Fastest Growing Companies Awards