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David Robinson: Manufacturers scrambling to figure out how to fill anticipated job openings

Adam Pratt has a people problem – and it’s a big one.

Pratt, the president of Shearex Fastening Solutions in the Town of Tonawanda, isn’t alone, either.

With more than 17,000 manufacturing jobs expected to come open in the next five years as older workers retire, Shearex and other Buffalo Niagara manufacturers are scrambling to figure out how to find enough replacements.

Pratt knows it won’t be easy.

“It is the No. 1 issue that we, as manufacturers, face,” Pratt said. “Ten years from now, it’s going to get worse.”

In fact, a new report from the Western New York STEM Hub found that the region’s training programs for middle-skill manufacturing jobs currently are training only enough workers to fill 63 percent of the jobs that are coming open.

“It’s a game of catch-up,” said Michelle Kavanaugh, the STEM Hub’s president. “We’ve got a long way to go if we’re only producing 63 percent of the workforce we need for the openings we currently have, let alone meet future needs as retirements mount.”

A big part of the problem is changing the way students, parents and guidance counselors view manufacturing. In a region where two of every five factory jobs have been eliminated since 1990, manufacturing has been viewed as a dead-end career choice for a long time – and for good reason.

Even Martin Scaglione, a national workforce development expert and a former Maytag Corp. vice president who was brought to town last week by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to speak with local manufacturers, admitted that he used to discourage his own children from thinking about making a career in factory work.

“I used to tell my kids, if you don’t go to college, you’re going to be drilling screws at the Maytag factory,” he said.

But with the wave of retirements coming, that outlook is changing for the better, he said. Across the country, between 2.5 million and 3 million manufacturing jobs will open up by 2021 because of retirements. The challenge now is to convince workers that the opportunities are there.

“We’ve been told that work is bad. Those are bad jobs. Those are dirty jobs. That everybody has to go to college,” said Scaglione, the president and CEO of Hope Street Group.

Those days are gone, Scaglione said. Much of the low-skilled factory work has moved overseas, leaving more demanding and complex tasks for the surviving manufacturing plants here. That puts a premium on skills, especially technology skills.

“Advanced manufacturing is the most exciting occupation in the United States,” he said. “The work environments are different. They’re climate-controlled. They’re exciting.”

They don’t pay too badly, either. The median annual pay for a middle-skill advanced manufacturing job in Western New York is a little more than $41,300 a year, the WNY STEM report found.

Still, manufacturers say it’s hard to find good workers. Some new hires decide that factory work isn’t for them and quit. Others fail drug tests. Some aren’t dependable and can’t show up on time. Given all that, some manufacturers say there’s less than a 50 percent chance that a new hire works out.

Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the Partnership’s president, said the solution starts with better training.

Too many of today’s job training programs are measured by how many workers participate, she said. A better way would be to measure how successful those programs are in placing workers in jobs that are in demand.

And better training starts with better information about exactly what types of jobs will be opening up and the types of skills that are required to fill them.

The WNY STEM report is a first step that tries to quantify what types of middle-skill jobs will be in demand – positions ranging from electrical drafters and robotic technicians to industrial machinery mechanics.

Most of the so-called middle-skill jobs require training beyond high school, either at community colleges or in certificate programs. Invest Buffalo Niagara is doing a more comprehensive labor market analysis that is expected to be ready early next year.

By identifying the types of jobs that are expected to be in demand, Kavanaugh said manufacturers and local training agencies and schools can start working together to figure out how to meet those needs.

“This is a community problem, and it can only be solved by connecting the community,” Gallagher-Cohen said.

That means manufacturers have to be more involved, too.

Getting students into factories to see what they’re all about is a start. Some manufacturers, like Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda, regularly take school groups through its plant. General Motors took students on a tour as part of Manufacturing Day last week.

But there’s more to be done.

That could mean setting up internship programs to expose students to the daily activities in a modern factory.

It could mean setting up mentorship programs to help students who are interested in a career in manufacturing or assist workers who are just starting out get on a path for advancement.

It could mean establishing a relationship with local schools. Buffalo contract manufacturer Tapecon, for instance, has built ties with McKinley High School in Buffalo, creating a link between the screen printing program at the school and the company’s screen printing business.

Why do it? “So people can see these are high-paying jobs,” Scaglione said.

There are other things at stake, too. If companies can’t find enough qualified labor, they could invest in more automation, which would further fuel the loss of factory jobs.

Or the companies could go where labor is available. Or they could go under, simply because they can’t find the workers to do what needs to be done.

“Our workforce system is at a point of breaking,” Scaglione said.

But it won’t fix itself. And there’s too much at stake for manufacturers to stay on the sidelines.

“The manufacturers have to lead the way,” Scaglione said.


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