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Manufacturing group leader sees revival

Jerry Sheldon was ready for a career change but found a way to stay involved in manufacturing.

Sheldon sold his business, Lancaster Tanks and Steel Products, last September, and earlier this year became the first executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance. The group had about 35 members when established in 2010, and now has more than 120.

Sheldon spent about 20 years at Praxair in the Town of Tonawanda in engineering and management positions before leaving to buy Elmwood Tank and Piping Corp., a small mechanical contracting company. Two years later, he bought Lancaster Tanks.

Manufacturing attracts plenty of attention in Western New York these days, from the SolarCity plant being built in Buffalo, to the Buffalo Manufacturing Works center designed to help companies grow. Sheldon, a 59-year-old Williamsville resident, says he sees potential for the nonprofit BNMA to support the industry by attracting more members, connecting them with each other, and speaking out on pressing issues:

Q: How has the BNMA built its membership?

A: Truthfully, I think it is partly because there’s been a void in this particular arena for manufacturers. Most of those folks who have joined didn’t come about from any big recruitment campaign. Manufacturers are talking to each other and saying, ‘Hey, you might want to get involved with this group, they’re doing some neat things and they’ve got a bright future.’

Q: What’s your role as executive director?

A: One of the things that I’m attempting to do is be the guy that can kind of connect the dots, or be the conduit between making connections between this company and that company.

I’ve probably already been to 15 different [member] companies. Two weeks ago, I went into one company, and he’s telling me about what he does, and I said, ‘You know, I know so-and-so is looking for that kind of help.’

So I made an email introduction that afternoon, and sure enough, they got business from each other.

Q: What are common themes you hear from manufacturers?

A: The workforce development piece is probably the biggest thing on most people’s mind. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. The good is, manufacturing is growing and you hear projects like Riverbend, and that’s all good.

The bad is, or the challenge is, that requires a lot more people. There’s some concern for our members that they’re going to get pirated for their people to go off to another location, for another opportunity. So how can we backfill?

We also have an aging population. We have folks that are going to be moving out of their jobs.

There’s definitely a concern about workforce, where the next wave of people is coming from.

Q: How can manufacturing recruit more workers?

A: The governor has made a commitment to the Buffalo area with the Buffalo Billion, and within that funding stream there is money for manufacturing.

There are certain skill sets that are going to be in demand. We can help get that word out.

There’s a mindset that maybe has to be tweaked a little bit, from a ‘college track’ to a ‘career track.’ That career could be college, but it could be a one-year certification program, or it could be an apprenticeship out of high school.

The folks that work in the skilled trades make a very good living. Unfortunately, it’s not usually posed as an option to them.

Q: How important is it for area manufacturing to have a project like SolarCity coming here?

A: It means a lot. It will elevate the opportunities for people that work in the skilled trades.

It will pose a lot of challenges, though, too, to give them the staff and workforce they require.

Equally important to me is how much work they may spin off to other companies here, that will be so beneficial to some of the smaller companies we have.

Our membership spans two- to five-person companies, up to the Goodyear Dunlops. We have a broad range of companies. It’s great to help everybody.

Q: What kind of impact can Buffalo Manufacturing Works , the advanced manufacturing training center, have?

A: Significant. The folks from EWI [who operate the center] will work with folks on applied research and help them with stuff they would never do on their own.

It’s going to be an investment of some time and money for them to partner with EWI, but at the end of the day, they’ll get something they’d probably never get on their own. So I think that’s an important thing.

Then there’s the ability to educate and train our local companies – I’m thinking of more of the smaller-type guys – with exporting. We have a World Trade Center of Buffalo Niagara here with very knowledgeable people on how to export.

And then there’s folks here at Insyte Consulting and UB who offer business training, whether it’s lean manufacturing or things of that nature.

And the fourth piece is training. It’s going to involve getting a lot of the key stakeholders in the same room: the Erie Community Colleges, the Alfreds, the Buff States, and so on, who are already training students to enter the manufacturing world, to get to come together how to figure out a program to do it most effectively, most efficiently. So we can not only tap into the young adults who are just coming up, but to tap into the underemployed or the refugee population that’s coming into Buffalo, and be able to offer a center where they can come and get the help they need to find a decent job.

Q: Do you get the sense things are going well economically for manufacturers here?

A: For most of them, I would say the answer is yes to that.

There is a lot of talent and sophistication in terms of what can and is being done right here in Western New York. A lot of the folks that do that work, maybe because they have a technical background and or they might not have a type A personality, they don’t scream from the top of a mountaintop how good they are. They’re good. I’ve seen it.