Manufacturing’s changes and challenges

Melinda Rizzo, contributing writer//October 11, 2019

Manufacturing’s changes and challenges

Melinda Rizzo, contributing writer//October 11, 2019

Manufacturing employers across Pennsylvania continue to struggle to fill manufacturing jobs – they create them faster than workers step up to fill them.

Employers are promoting jobs through advocacy programs and manufacturing non-profit groups, working with public school district officials and guidance offices, career and technical school partnerships as well as old-fashioned word of mouth and one-on-one recruiting from existing employees, family and friends – and they’re sourcing new talent in unexpected places.

“Dark and dirty was manufacturing’s past, but it’s not today’s manufacturing and it won’t be tomorrow’s,” said Shaun P. Donovan, director of regional workforce partnerships at the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC in Harrisburg.

Hiring trends continue to lean on referrals from family or friends and word-of-mouth referrals.

Industry advocates strive to change the public perception of manufacturing as a static, often dirty profession, by promoting 21st century manufacturing opportunities in high tech, clean room, computer assisted and skilled precision positions, where workers can carve out a career after high school graduation.

Employers are looking for workers who are eager to learn, flexible, and dependable on the job.

Donovan said many firms take advantage of temporary employment agencies to fill immediate vacancies then hope the temp hire becomes a permanent one.

“A lot of companies are being more talent pipeline based. They use online job boards, which have replaced newspaper ads, and they’re using temp agencies to find talent,” Donovan said.

Manufacturing niche sectors continue to grow, but with the exodus of retirement-aged workers there aren’t enough newcomers to fill the gaps, Donovan said.

“The biggest challenge is the overall shortage in the workforce,” Donovan said.

Meanwhile, the qualities employers are looking for in a new employee have shifted. “We’re in an interesting period of time right now,” he said. “We’re seeing more technical skills needed, robotics in plants, much more automation, which has changed the style of worker needed.”

Donovan said heavy manual labor is less common and jobs require more skills to handle machine repairs to technical positions. Business owners are realizing the skill set needed over the next decade will be different, as industries continue to shift and evolve.

“A lot of programs can train and move people forward,” Donovan said.

David Taylor, president of Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association in Harrisburg, says a negative image of manufacturing jobs persists overall, despite significant changes in the industry. “[Manufacturing] is an economic driver and a multiplier for job creation.”

Convincing young people early — middle school aged and younger — to consider careers in manufacturing and industry has fueled science technology, engineering and math (STEM ) and newer science technology engineering art and math (STEAM ) educational programming in many school districts.

Apprenticeship programs are a way to bring in new talent, said Patty Marrero, vice president of organization development and talent acquisition for Phoenix Contact in Middletown. Phoenix Contact became the first firm to be certified by the U.S. Department of Labor in mechatronics in 2013.

Mechatronics incorporates elements of electrical and mechanical systems engineering. Mechatronics divisions may also include robotics, computer systems, controls and telecommunications components, making these workers highly specialized and desirable employees.

Phoenix offers four-year apprenticeship programs in mechatronics, which includes funding an associate’s degree at 100 percent tuition reimbursement at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Employees who enroll in the program are trained, attend college and are paid employees during the four-year process, she said.

“Those who finish have a degree, journeyman’s papers and they become mentors” to new employees, Marrero said. To date 12 Phoenix employees have completed the four-year program and mentor others.

Employers are also realizing and recruiting those formerly passed over for jobs – those who have served prison sentences.

“These are steps we have not seen before but are happening. Employers are more open,” said John W. Lloyd, president and CEO of MANTEC, Manufacturing Consulting Services South Central PA, in York.

He said employers are also using grant opportunities through state programs such as those offered by the Department of Community and Economic Development to attract employees and provide workforce development.

According to Donovan south central Pennsylvania is home to 2,532 manufacturing businesses employing 119,240 workers. The manufacturing sector accounts for $15 billion, or about 15.7 percent of the area’s gross domestic product.

In the Lehigh Valley, about 700 manufacturing businesses employ roughly 34,000 workers, said George Lewis, director of research and analysis for Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation in Allentown.

“Manufacturing also contributes $7.4 billion to the region’s economic output, second only to finance, insurance, and real estate in contribution to [our] regional GDP,” Lewis said.

Lloyd said manufacturing business owners are realizing they must be more flexible – not just in working hours and conditions, but in listening to newcomers and welcoming new thinking.

“The workplace is changing. Companies are realizing the need to be more…open to new ideas,” Lloyd said