Central PA manufacturers and schools bridge the 'skills gap'
As vice president of a company making power transmission coupling products, James Anderson III sees a problem that is common across manufacturing.
When a machinist, welder or other skilled worker retires or even goes on vacation, Anderson and other executives at Coupling Corp. of America, based in Jacobus, York County, have problems finding a replacement with the same skills.
“It’s a real problem, getting the metalworking and the mechanical skills,” Anderson said. “You’re forced to train on the job more, because they’re not necessarily coming in with the skills they need. You take what they do have and try to build on it, and just try to get them to the next level.”
Anderson is one of many in the midstate manufacturing sector grappling with finding quality workers. Baby boomers in skilled trades are retiring, and younger people are less inclined to enroll in two-year schools and learn trades like carpentry and welding.
Anderson, like others in manufacturing, is encouraged by recent steps taken by local school districts to increase the number of technical courses, and also to align them better with business needs. But he feels more steps are needed to reverse the lack of qualified workers for high-skilled, in-demand jobs.
Anderson has worked for 13 years with Coupling Corp., which has some 45 employees and a second location in Hanover. Couplings are mechanical devices that connect two pieces of rotating equipment that transmit power from one piece to the other through rotational power, not electrical or hydraulic means, he said.
The firm’s products are used in various industries, including nuclear, military, industrial, aerospace, fossil power and plastics.
Anderson hears other manufacturers talk about another shortage – finding enough people coming out of school with a strong work ethic.
“Skills are a part of it, but being diligent and hard-working is something that just can’t be taught,” Anderson added.
John Weaver is president of Weaver Manufacturing Inc. of Denver, a third-generation, family-owned maker of custom graphite and urethane parts.
A former member of the Cocalico district school board, Weaver said school systems too often are judged by how many people they move into four-year education.
“And let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for a four-year education or college. I always said that people need to go on from high school to some kind of higher education, but they need to look at the trade schools or CTC programs, because the machine-shop field is a good field,” he said.
Educators are seeing the problem, often thanks to communication with industry leaders, and are responding, said James Sterner, assistant principal at Susquehannock High School in southern York County.
Recently, Sterner’s school sent 60 staff members to a dozen local businesses to tour their facilities and ask leaders at the companies to help Susquehannock retool its curriculum to better prepare students, in both hard and so-called soft skills.
Other steps include increasing partnerships between teachers and counselors and business professionals, and coordinating more in-school visits from manufacturers to share opportunities in the field.
“There also are internship/shadowing opportunities, which we have in pockets but definitely need to explore on a much larger scale,” Sterner said.
Another critical step, he emphasized, is getting parents to shift from always wanting their children to attend four-year colleges.
“It’s more about, what is your passion, what is going to make you wake up excited to go to work every morning, and what’s it going to take to get there?” Sterner said. “Does it take a four-year school, does it take a two-year school, can you get there from job-site experience?”