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Help wanted Companies are beginning to hire again, but qualified workers are hard to find

At Ashton Potter, Barry Switzer, the president and chief executive officer, is sizing up his company's growth prospects.

The high-security printer, which has plants in Amherst and Cheektowaga, counts the U.S. Postal Service as its No. 1 customer, but the manufacturer is taking advantage of other opportunities, as well.

"You've got to have a strategy and you've got to constantly make sure it's the right strategy," Switzer said. "And you've got to find a way to make it happen."

Ashton Potter, which employs about 160 people, is not the only Buffalo Niagara manufacturer thinking bigger these days. Labor statistics show manufacturing employment is rising, an uncommon trend here over the past couple of decades.

The region's manufacturing job count is not back to where it was before the recession struck. Nevertheless, Richard Deitz, regional economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said it is notable that as the economy starts to recover, manufacturing jobs are returning, too – unlike in some recent business cycles, when the lost jobs disappeared.

But the growth faces challenges, primarily finding skilled workers. Young people have been steered toward college and away from manufacturing for years, and now as the aging manufacturing workforce prepares to retire, plant managers worry about replacing them.

"I think manufacturers had a pretty tough brand, so to speak, over the past few decades," said Adam Pratt, vice president of Sherex Fastening Solutions and the chairman of the Manufacturers Council of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Pratt said manufacturers who survived the Great Recession have learned to adapt and be more versatile. A company that in the past might have concentrated on supplying only the automotive market might now also serve industries like alternative energy and agricultural equipment, he said.

But such versatility requires a nimble workforce, able to adapt and solve problems as they arise.

Mark Andol, owner of General Welding and Fabricating in Elma, said he has had trouble filling several job openings he has for welders. He is talking to a potential new hire in Norfolk, Va., who is thinking of moving back to Western New York. "I'm reaching further than the [local] area," he said.

Andol said he thinks the education system is tilting away from preparing people for skilled-labor jobs like welders.

"I can't find any workers," he said. "My whole goal here was to create jobs. And I'm thinking, ‘Where are the workers?'"

Andol is trying to focus on hiring young people coming out of programs like BOCES who have chosen welding as a career.

"I see it being the No. 1 problem in the country: finding skilled workers," he said.

Any upswing in the manufacturing sector can yield benefits for the wider local economy. Powell said many companies are inclined to purchase their supplies locally.

"If they can find it in Western New York, and the quality is there, and the cost is almost there, they'll go with the local," he said.

> Numbers improving

Hiring is picking up slowly in area plants. In April, Buffalo Niagara had 53,300 manufacturing jobs, up 9 percent from April 2010, according to the state Department of Labor.

"We haven't seen that kind of upswing in I don't know how many years," said Deitz, of the Federal Reserve. And it was better than the 3.5 percent national increase in manufacturing jobs over the same period.

The manufacturing jobs count for April was the region's best for that month since 2008. And the region's monthly manufacturing job total has been at or above the 50,000-job mark each month since August 2010.

The latest figures still fall far short of the 72,000 manufacturing jobs the region had in April 10 years ago, or the 85,200 it had in April 20 years ago. And Buffalo Niagara has taken some recent high-profile hits to its manufacturing base like the closing of the Quad/Graphics printing plant in Depew.

Even so, observers say they are encouraged to see local manufacturing halt – and somewhat reverse – the job decline that has become the norm over the years.

"Manufacturing is still a significant sector in the economy," Deitz said. "It still employs a lot of people."

Among U.S. metro areas, Buffalo Niagara ranked No. 42 in manufacturing jobs, according to a new Brookings Institute study based on 2010 data. The region's average manufacturing wage was $57,080, slightly lower than the U.S. average of $58,485. (The average wage for all jobs in the region was $40,309). And manufacturing jobs in the region accounted for 9.1 percent of all jobs, compared to 8.5 percent nationwide.

The Brookings study said Buffalo Niagara has 7 percent more manufacturing jobs than the national average; in 1980, the region had about 30 percent more manufacturing jobs than the typical U.S. community.

The manufacturing sector's profile in Buffalo Niagara has shifted away from the giant factories employing hundreds or even thousands toward numerous small to midsize manufacturers that compete in niches emphasizing quality over being the lowest-cost producer. The Brookings report said the average Buffalo Niagara manufacturing plant had about 50 employees in 2009.

Among the area employers preparing to staff up is the leaner General Motors' Town of Tonawanda engine plant, which is installing two new engine lines. Ford Motor Co.'s stamping plant in Hamburg also plans to increase its employment as the automaker follows through on new investment pledged for the facility.

HDM Hydraulics, a maker of custom hydraulic cylinders, is expanding its Town of Tonawanda facility and adding jobs. Wendt Corp., a maker of automobile shredders, has added a second area location to accommodate its growth.

Ashton Potter is known for printing postal stamps and related products. While the U.S. Postal Service remains its top customer by far, the company has also tapped into opportunities in tax stamps, to verify taxes have been paid on products, and brand protection labels, which verify a brand-name product like a hat or a pair of boots is authentic.

"It's a growth industry," Switzer said. "It's an area that's really driven by technology."

> Seeking youth

Members of the Partnership's Manufacturers Council are trying to build on what they see as an improving business climate.

"The recession was hard on [manufacturers]," said Nadine Powell, manager of business advocacy for the Partnership. "Coming out of it, they all are a lot sharper."

The Manufacturers Council members hold business roundtables to share ideas and tour each others' facilities to see what they can apply to their own operations.

But a common concern among many shops remains the average age of their work forces and the supply of mechanically inclined and trained young people to fill their shoes.

The Manufacturers Council is enthusiastic about a program developed by the National Association of Manufacturers called, "Dream It. Do It." The program aims to offset the shortage of skilled workers in U.S. manufacturing by exposing young people to career options while they are still in school.

Locally, the program was launched in Chautauqua County and will be implemented in Erie and Niagara counties this fall, Powell said. The districts and schools that will be targeted are under discussion, but they will be a mix of urban and suburban schools in the two counties.?