Efforts to boost jobs in manufacturing are intensifying
In recent weeks, an emerging trend has complicated Terry Jamison's job, which involves teaching students the skills to enter the workforce: Manufacturers increasingly are calling him and asking for students who might be good fits for their companies.
“It gets annoying,” he said about the calls, adding that he was half-joking because it is a good problem to have. “This year, they are actually contacting me and saying, ‘please bring your students out to see our operation.’”
“I am getting calls from all over – New Jersey, New York, Maryland, as well as Pennsylvania,” he said. In all, he has 63 employers on a list of companies looking for good workers.
Jamison teaches precision machining technology at York County School of Technology, where he prepares students for careers in manufacturing and other sectors that don’t require a college degree. For years now, skilled manufacturing workers have been in high demand, but he still would have to contact employers and nudge doors open for promising students.
The need for skilled workers has increased dramatically in recent months because of a nearly 50-year-low unemployment rate that is being exacerbated in factories because of an aging workforce that is retiring in waves, Jamison and others said.
The pendulum swings
Factory work developed a bad reputation about a generation ago, as jobs left the U.S. and education leaders pushed four-year college degrees as the path toward careers, observers said. But the pendulum swung too far, leaving many manufacturers short on workers and spurring efforts to change perceptions about the work. The issues are playing out nationwide.
“There is a lack of awareness of what these jobs look like,” said Jack Pfunder, president and CEO of the Manufacturers Resource Center in Allentown. “People still think they are dark and dingy jobs.”
In an effort to promote factory work, companies, governments and schools statewide have been celebrating various versions of Manufacturing Weeks or Manufacturing Days.
But the biggest promotional tool is the promise of good pay and benefits for the right student, Pfunder and Jamison said. Factory wages, on average, start at about $15 per hour, Pfunder said, with $25 per hour being typical for skilled jobs, such as welding. Annual average pay is about $65,000 per year, plus benefits.
Some workers can command even more.
At a recent event, Jamison said, an employer approached him and made clear that annual pay of $91,937 is within reach for a worker with the right skills and attitude, meaning they are willing to work some weekends and overtime. Such opportunities are not rare, Jamison said.
A student graduating at 18 with some skills could already land in an apprenticeship program lasting four or five years. He or she would be in a position of getting excellent pay and benefits by the age of 22 or 23, Jamison said. They would have no debt tied to education and they would earn credentials transferable to just about any state in the country.
“The sky is the limit,” he said.
Lynda Morris, executive director of the Capital Region Partnership for Career Development in Enola, said her group continually seeks to educate educators about the rewards of a manufacturing career. The bad stereotypes are so entrenched that efforts are starting to reach back to elementary schools to show students – but more importantly their parents – that the sector can offer a bright future.
She agreed with Jamison that employer outreach has started to accelerate in reverse – with companies offering more tours and student access than schools can sometimes accommodate.
No let-up in demand
The experts noted that the pressure on manufacturers might not ease any time soon. The federal government reported Oct. 5 that the unemployment rate in September was 3.7 percent, a level last seen in 1969. While some jobs are being created in manufacturing, the real problem is the massive retirement of baby boomers, Pfunder said.
“We don’t have the backfill of unskilled workers to take it up,” he said, adding that he is in his 70s and spent a career in factories. “They might not be adding jobs, but they have a need for replacing people.”
Jamison, who is 53, noted that efforts are being pushed now so that apprentices and journeymen can spend a few years learning from those with decades of experience before they retire.
Previous generations had high regard for such jobs. Someone who was a “tinkerer” would prefer a job working with his or her hands, rather than going to college, Pfunder said.
“They knew which end of the wrench to use, so to speak,” he said. Modern factory jobs – especially those with the highest pay – often require technical and computer skills.
The ideal student today would have that same interest in tinkering, he said, as well as an inquisitive mind. A team player – who can solve problems and has the right attitude about working in a factory with shift work – can succeed, Pfunder said.
“Kids need to understand it is lifelong learning in terms of a trade,” he added.
Jamison noted that some people are wary of manufacturing jobs because they are concerned about automation replacing them. He noted that while automation might replace some jobs, the job that remains will require skills that will be in demand, even if it means retraining over time. Everything that is made in a modern economy – from eyeglasses to auto parts to machine parts – required someone with skills in machining to make them, he said.
Jamison is proud of what he has been able to do for his students over the years at York County School of Technology. Programs designed to get students into jobs can start in their junior years, and the opportunities often lead to full-time work after graduation. As the demand increases, that track record should continue, he said.
“We actually do very well placing students,” he said.