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Modern manufacturing reflects shift to higher skills

Local manufacturers want to fill job openings and update their image at the same time.

They want to banish the image of factories as dingy, unsafe working environments, in a sector with dwindling job prospects and low-skilled occupations. Rather than simply lamenting the problem, companies are supporting educational programs like “Dream It, Do It,” showing young people what modern manufacturing jobs look like. The employers are eager to attract new talent, anticipating a wave of retirements by older workers in the near future.

At Buffalo Manufacturing Works, high school students are working with 3-D printers in a new lab. SolarCity is telling prospective applicants about the pristine conditions under which workers will make solar panels in South Buffalo, once the factory is running.

Much of the nation’s low-skilled manufacturing work has migrated overseas, and the region’s manufacturing job count is 43 percent lower than 25 years ago. But more-advanced production remains here. The companies running those factories are looking for workers with a higher level of skills to fill those jobs, or training them to reach that level. Nowadays, someone who would be called a blue-collar worker in a Buffalo-area factory often needs computer know-how to operate a machine.

Tapecon, a 100-employee commercial printer based in Buffalo, reflects the changing times. The contract manufacturer looks for workers with a good attitude, a passion for the work, and an ability to learn, said Steve Davis, president. Their first 90 days on the job typically reveal whether it’s a good fit for employer and employee alike.

“Once we find the right people, the retention rate is great,” Davis said. “It’s finding that right match that can be costly.”

Tapecon has invested in digital printers, so it’s essential to find workers capable of running that equipment, or who can learn to do so, he said.

Harper International looks for workers who aren’t specialized in just a single area, such as electricians or welders, said Diana Robbins, vice president of marketing and sales management. “We look for people who are more broadly skilled.”

Harper is based in Cheektowaga and has operations in Lancaster, employing about 105 people. The company makes high-tech, high-temperature furnace and oven systems.

Harper employees sometimes travel overseas to install and start up equipment at a customer’s site, reflecting the expanded responsibilities those workers take on.

Industrial engineers have also grown into an important link in Harper’s production between design engineers and the workers building the finished product, Robbins said.

Harper has a unionized production work force, so turnover is not really an issue, Robbins said. “Many of our guys have been here 20 years, and they’re not looking to go anywhere.”


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