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CPBJ Extra Blog

Manufacturing a living wage

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I am working on a story about minimum wage and trying to find out who pays $7.25 per hour, the current state and federal wage.

I know about fast-food jobs and wait staff who supplement their hourly wage with tips. But are there any full-time jobs out there still paying the minimum? I find it hard to believe there are very many such jobs in this area, but I could be wrong.

Let's consider manufacturing. When I graduated from high school in the summer of 1986, the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour. And I think I made $3.35 an hour. It certainly wasn't much more than that.

For this figure, I got to suit up in rubber boots, a heavy rubber apron, glasses and ear plugs, enter a steel cage that resembled a small garage and spray powerful acid onto subway train air conditioning units. The acid was required to clean the grime off the units before other departments performed necessary repairs.

I don't remember any mask or ventilation being a part of my "uniform" for this thankless job, but then again, I try not to think about the health risks I took during those days.

Back to my sorry, minimum-wage paycheck. I think I got a 15-cent raise after 90 days, and I know I was happy to get it.

Fast forward 28 years and manufacturers are no longer paying minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unskilled "production helpers" were paid an average wage of $12.66 per hour in 2013. "Assemblers," another largely unskilled labor classification, were paid an average of $15.58 per hour.

In the warehouse category, "laborers and material movers" were paid an average of $14.53 nationwide. The pay range — as it did in 1986 — rises from there as employees acquire machinist skills and management roles.

But how do those national figures compare with opportunities in Central Pennsylvania? I wondered about that and decided to seek out a few warehouse/manufacturing job listings. I chose these job openings completely at random, the only criteria being the hourly wage had to be included.

JFC Temps had the first manufacturing job I found: positions for packing production along with forklift in the Ephrata area. JFC promised the "possibility of getting hired on full time and the pay range is from $10 to $11 per hour."

On the warehousing side, Berks and Beyond Employment Services Inc. is looking for warehouse packers to fill orders for a facility on Ritner Highway in Carlisle for first and third shifts. The pay is between $9 and $10.50 per hour.

At first glance, it might appear as though compensation is lagging behind those national averages locally. I'm not sure that's the case, even if these two jobs represent the typical manufacturing/warehousing jobs. First of all, pay raises come quickly. I ended up with three raises in my first year.

Linda Grove, government procurement specialist for the Kutztown Small Business Development Center office in York, owned several Subway franchises between 1991 and 2010. She said it is common to start off low-level workers at a lower wage until it is clear they will stay, then give multiple early raises.

Secondly, there is a critical need for good people. Someone with smarts and ambition can make a nice career in manufacturing. And with hundreds more jobs in the pipeline locally, simple market economics tells us the wage scale will improve even more.

That's my view. Here's an opposing view on the supposed decline of manufacturing from a Washington Post Wonkblog entry last year: "From the mid-1970s until shortly before the Great Recession, it really paid to be a factory worker in America. Specifically, manufacturing workers earned more per hour, on average, than workers across the private sector at large."

That "wage premium," writer Jim Tankersley explained, is what made manufacturing the ticket to the middle class.

"Today the premium has gone negative. Here's part of the explanation for why that is: The factory sector has been almost entirely de-unionized."

About 80 percent of union jobs have disappeared since the 1970s, he added. Unions that have survived have lost much of their power. Tankersley makes a compelling argument, with plenty of data.

What do you think — is manufacturing/warehousing still a good career? Why or why not?

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