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Training plan would bolster manufacturing workforce

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A proposal from Pennsylvania's workforce investment boards is designed to meet the employment needs of manufacturers having trouble finding workers with the right skills to run increasingly automated factories.

The Lancaster County Workforce Investment Board recently submitted the proposal to the U.S. Department of Labor in a $12 million grant application, Executive Director Scott Sheely said. The proposal would set up a statewide system to train

machine operators, industrial maintenance personnel and mechatronics technicians, or the combination of mechanical, electronic and computer engineering that’s crucial to automation.

Large and small manufacturers stand to gain a better workforce from such training initiatives, he said. Workforce professionals and company executives said that’s crucial for manufacturing, which is seeing a resurgence in the state.

If the Labor Department funds the project, Pennsylvania could have a direct system to funnel new workers to such jobs, as well as retrain dislocated and incumbent workers for the automated factory environment, according to the proposal.

“If we could be training hundreds — if not thousands — of workers, it would give Pennsylvania a tremendous advantage over other states,” Sheely said.

Part of the issue is the aging workforce, he said. As more manufacturing workers hit retirement age, there’s a gap between the baby boomers and younger generations of workers, he said.

Manufacturing is lacking large influxes of young people, either because of economic movements toward technology and service sectors, or due to outdated stereotypes that manufacturing is a low-tech, low-paying

industry, trade groups and executives have said.

Combined with the large number of people set to retire in coming years, there are fewer skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs, especially as it continues rebounding from the recession. Local, regional and national statistics show the economy has been better to manufacturing, but executives say it’s difficult for them to fill positions.

In some cases, manufacturers are beyond where they were in 2008, but they have open positions on the factory floor and turn down business because they first need to fill jobs on the production line.

Additional training initiatives are crucial to stem such trends, said Glenn Eyster Jr., president of Etube & Wire, a York County-based company that lost 40 percent of its business in the recession, yet expects to surpass 2008 numbers this year.

“What (companies) need to do in this country is they can’t abandon training,” he said.

The state Department of Labor and Industry released studies in 2010 that illustrated the manufacturing workforce’s acute need for industrial maintenance and mechanical engineering positions. Those are the folks tasked with keeping the factory running, and they could be in short supply in coming years.

Such statistics were included in the training grant proposal. More than 62,400 people were employed in the top 10 manufacturing positions — including electrical and electronic engineering technicians, industrial engineering technician, machinist, and tool and die maker — in 2009 with an expected growth increase of 4,600 by 2018, according to the proposal.

However, retirements and the number of replacement workers needed in the period increases that number to more than 16,300, or 26 percent, in those occupations, according to the proposal. Basically, retirement will nearly quadruple natural job growth.

“What (companies are) finding now is that there’s a talent gap to run the machines and, more importantly, repair and maintain the equipment,” Sheely said.

The proposal would tackle the problem in two ways: first, by providing training for advanced level industrial maintenance and mechatronics to incumbent and dislocated workers with experience; and second, establish a manufacturing pathway program that outlines the requirements for workers to move through manufacturing ranks toward higher-end careers.

Community colleges, career and technical centers, and for-profit training programs would administer the training, Sheely said. Most of the state’s community colleges already signed on, and the WIB has certified nine schools that have programs ready to go, he said.

The programs would be coordinated through the regional workforce investment boards and the industry partnerships already using public and private money to bolster training and industry development, he said.

“There’s a huge necessity for people who can keep automation running,” said Dan Wagner, director of manufacturing and green technology programs at Harrisburg Area Community College. “It’s not the same job that it was in your father’s day. There’s such a higher level of skill needed in industrial maintenance.”

Last year, 14 community colleges in Pennsylvania received $20 million from the U.S. Labor Department to set up the infrastructure for similar retraining programs. The grant included HACC, which put its $2 million toward advanced manufacturing and logistics; energy production, conservation and distribution; and electronic medical records and health care technology.

It was a good start, but the latest proposal would be a sustained effort, Sheely and Wagner said. The point is that four-year and two-year degrees with concentrations in science, technology, engineering and math are more relevant to all manufacturing workers in today’s world because of automation, Wagner said.

New proposals would augment that with industry-accepted certifications, he said. The idea is to cross-train workers with technical knowledge and skills that have reach beyond one company, one industry or one job, he said.

“As things change, you’ll have skills that are portable across the economy,” Wagner said.

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