In a far corner of New Concept Technology Inc.'s York County manufacturing plant, a room sits empty during the day. Only a couple of hundred feet away, the main factory floor buzzes noisily with machines making precision electronic components.
But four nights a week, aspiring manufacturing workers take over the room, studying from experienced tradespeople for careers in growing midstate companies like New Concept.
There are 144 people in the apprenticeship program started by the York-based Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania in April. The Manufacturing Training Center will begin its more intensive hands-on classes in December.
The goal is to help companies close the skills gaps they see in the available workforce, said Dana Dehoff, the association's director of member services and vice president of operations for its nonprofit Employers Education Foundation. Hopefully, they'll dent the skills gap as manufacturing grows, she said.
"We're hoping to double the size of the program in the next year," Dehoff said.
Part of the impetus for the program was the closing of the Goodling Regional Advanced Skills Center, a York County group that offered training in manufacturing, computer-aided drafting, geospatial information systems and health care, said Michael Smeltzer, the manufacturers' association's executive director.
The Goodling Center merged with the association in 2010, but the two groups remained separately managed. The center closed in 2011 after years of poor finances.
"We decided, let's try to build our own (center)," Smeltzer said.
New Concept donated the 5,000-square-foot space for the training center, said Don Hubbard, New Concept's operations manager. The company had the space in its 185,000-square-foot Manchester Township factory, but it's more than just generosity, he said.
"It's important that multiple companies help build the industry's workforce," Hubbard said. "You need the classroom and the hands-on environment to properly train workers for manufacturing."
Hildebrand cut a 50-50 deal where it donated about $9,700 worth of machines, and the association bought $9,000 worth of equipment, she said. CAM Innovation donated four machines. The association purchased another for a total of nine.
"It's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, putting it all together," Smeltzer said.
The association transferred $25,000 to its foundation to get the center off the ground, he said. Going forward, though, costs could reach into six digits when you count equipment upgrades, materials and paying for trainers.
But the effort will be worth it.
"It allows (workers) to get the basic skills so they can be ready for the manufacturing workforce," Dehoff said.
Those skills are in need more than ever.
A 2011 survey of 1,100 companies by the Manufacturing Institute — the nonprofit arm of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers — found that 83 percent of companies reported moderate to serious shortages of skilled production workers such as machinists and technicians.
About 5 percent of all jobs at manufacturers, or 600,000 positions nationally, remained unfilled from lack of qualified candidates, according to the institute.
So why are so few skilled workers available, particularly when Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is 8.1 percent and it lost 79,700 manufacturing jobs in the recession?
The problem goes further back, Hubbard said. Manufacturing declined for decades prior. As it did, companies cut training programs because there wasn't as much need for the expensive programs.
Workers in an apprentice program are learning on the job for up to five years, which costs about $10,000 for one worker, Dehoff said. And it can take years for workers to get up to full speed, meaning they're not as productive as seasoned employees, she said.
"As manufacturing started to come back — and we have a long way to go — there wasn't enough skilled labor to go along with the increases," Hubbard said.
Since September 2009, manufacturing added 7,500 jobs, or 1.3 percent, for a total of 567,400 jobs, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
Nationally, manufacturing employed nearly 12 million people in October, up 189,000 jobs, or 1.6 percent, from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While it doesn't seem like a large increase, it's enough to warrant more workforce skills programs, officials said.
It is part of the reason Pennsylvania's community colleges joined together to apply for federal funds for a $20 million training initiative called JobTrakPa.
Harrisburg Area Community College received $2 million of that money and today has 100 people enrolled or completing training programs in advanced manufacturing, logistics, energy and health care information technology, said Kim Kaufman, its interim dean of economic and workforce development. Twenty-five people have been placed in jobs.
The college is working with companies to tailor programs, but because of specific needs, it's a difficult job, he said.
"You try to prepare people with generalized training that will prepare them for multiple companies," he said.
The community colleges also are looking at how to fund such programs in the future. The grant funds JobTrakPa for only three years.
"Resources are always finite," Kaufman said. "What you try to do is to nibble away at this."
Labor groups such as the York Area Labor-Management Council, which brings unions and management together to address industry issues, feel the pinch, too.
"Maybe if we get some grant money, we can do some training programs, but there's no money there for that," Executive Director Karin Althaus said.
The need is still there to address manufacturing's problems, and some are confident any training will make a difference.
"We spend so much time in post-secondary education and in training," Smeltzer said, "because we need to make a volumetric impact on this issue."