Allentown Economic Development Corporation

Monthly Archives: October 2017

Training, Retraining, and Upskilling the Lehigh Valley manufacturing workforce for automation jobs

The shortage of skilled workers for manufacturing jobs that is currently being seen around the country is also being felt here at home in the Lehigh Valley. The challenge is two-fold: getting young people interested in a technical career in manufacturing and training them for the work, while also upskilling and retraining the existing manufacturing workforce.

At the area’s employers, community colleges, and technical schools, a variety of efforts are underway to fill open jobs with the right talent, while giving incumbent workers a new start in their career.

Where the need is now

“With 4.8 percent unemployment, the market is tight right now,” said Gina Kormanik, Business Relations Director for the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board. “More jobs being are being added in automation at area manufacturers all the time. There might be fewer employees in manufacturing than in the past, but the jobs that exist now are higher paying, skilled positions. Today’s positions require cross knowledge of electronics and mechanics.”

LVWIB works with employees to connect them to companies with job openings and also works with employers to connect them to the resources they need to help them find skilled employees.

“At Lehigh Career and Technical Institute we train on both a secondary and post-secondary level, and the demand continues to outstrip our supply or ability to produce enough technicians,” said explained Dr. Thomas J. Rushton, Executive Director of LCTI. “In fact, just to fill openings that occur through attrition and retirement is a grand task not to mention any expansion of specific industries.”

“Local manufacturers are in desperate need of electromechanical technicians,” said Rushton. “They build, maintain, and troubleshoot advanced manufacturing production lines and automation processes across most industries. This is, in my opinion, an evolutionary trade as it evolves and changes rapidly with technological advances in manufacturing. It is truly a moving target.”

Introducing today’s students to careers in manufacturing

“Manufacturing is one of the Lehigh Valley’s leading driver of gross domestic product (medical, healthcare, precision machining, etc.) and all of it requires electromechanical technicians,” explained Rushton. “However, parents, students, guidance counselors, and teachers have no idea what this position entails, the potential career pathway and earning power, and what manufacturing looks like in 2017.”

“There is a very antiquated mindset of people’s perceptions of manufacturing careers and that jades their decision process, especially when steering students towards careers in manufacturing,” Rushton continued. “They believe it to be much like it was 50 years ago and that manufacturing jobs are not a path for lifelong employment.”

“In the next year we’ll be expanding our high school electromechanical program to double its capacity,” said Jan Brna, Director of Postsecondary and Workforce Education at LCTI. “We tell the students that there’s a starting rate of $30 – $32 an hour right out of school with the right training and skill set.”

“There should be post-secondary credentials for everyone, not just a four-year college degree,” said Tom Bux, Director of Workforce Development at Lehigh Carbon Community College. “Earning a high school diploma just isn’t enough anymore.”

“Although automation can be considered a disruptive technology in that it reduces the need for human capital, it also opens doors for careers that were previously nonexistent,” Rushton said. “Further, technology rapidly advances so we are teaching students in an evolutionary environment, which means it is constantly changing with the needs of industry.”

“To that end, LCTI needs to continually upgrade our equipment and curriculum to meet the needs of this rapidly changing work environment,” Rushton continued. “Our Occupational Advisory Committees, which are composed of industry representatives who serve each of our programs, recommend upgrades and the purchase of new equipment to mirror industry standards and changes to our curriculum to best train our students for success in specific industries.”

Every October, National Manufacturing Day is observed and aimed at exposing young people to modern manufacturing, and careers in the industry. Local schools arrange tours for students at local manufacturers to expose them to the kinds of work being performed. The PA Dream Team program, created and managed by Manufacturers Resource Center, uses presentations by young professionals working in advanced manufacturing given to students at schools around the state.

And the What’s So Cool About Manufacturing student video contest started by MRC five years ago in the Lehigh Valley region,
has now gone statewide with 12 regional contests for 2018. Aimed at middle school students, the program partners each team with a local manufacturer at which they shoot a video about what the company makes, showcasing it in a fun and entertaining way. The videos are then entered into a regional contest against other competing schools with an awards ceremony held each winter. The entire process exposes the students, their parents, their teachers, and others to careers in manufacturing before they choose a career path and course of study in their high school years.

The challenge of retraining older workers

“Automation and technology move and evolve at a very rapid pace and so the skill sets of workers must evolve as well,” said Brna. “Many workers have been in the workforce for many years and do not possess the skills necessary to adapt to this changing environment.”

“LCTI has done a lot of incumbent worker training in the manufacturing industry,” said Brna. “Most are open to learning new things, but we do encounter some who have not moved into a computerized, digital age and they have struggled just to get the basic concepts of operating a computer.”

“Upcoming baby boomer retirements are becoming an issue that is just going to get worse in time, leading to an even bigger workforce shortage because not as many people are entering manufacturing today,” said Bux.

Upskilling or retraining is a dynamic process for companies and it requires significant exposure to technology as well as a foundation in electrical theory, in the case of electromechanical technicians.

Some larger manufacturers work with LCTI and LCCC to arrange for employees to attend classes at the schools. Others offer a reimbursement program for employees who want to continue their training and advance their skill set by taking classes.

“We need more employers with the attitude that we will train you if you have the potential, aptitude, and desire to learn, even if you don’t come in the door with the right skill set,” said Bux.

Recently, MRC teamed up with LCCC to start a mobile manufacturing lab training program to bring the classroom to the students. Housed inside a 32 ft. truck trailer, the lab can be moved around the region to different sites. The pilot program started out at ATAS International with six students broken into three groups for two hours each.

“It’s sort of a flipped classroom,” explained Bux. “Student read chapters online with simulation and then come to the classroom to pass the hands-on test. It’s advanced training aimed at upskilling the existing workforce. An industrial automation certificate takes 200 hours to complete.”

The mobile classroom lab will move around periodically when a hosting company is found in an area of the region where an interest in the advanced skills training has been identified.

While all of the tactics mentioned are currently in play, it will take some time to turn things around, both in attracting young people to manufacturing jobs as a career option and in upskilling and retraining the incumbent workforce to modernize their skill sets along with the ever-changing technology.

Demco Automation makes the machines that make modern manufacturers more efficient

The topic of automation might be seen as controversial to some people, so who better to ask about it than someone with a front-row seat?

Stephen Maund, President and CEO of Demco Automation in Quakertown, makes the automated machines that manufacturing companies across the country and around the world use to make their own products.

Demco develops custom, automated manufacturing systems for clients in a variety of industries including automotive, electronics, defense, industrial, and life sciences (medical devices, biotech, and pharmaceutical). The systems include robotics, motion control, vision systems, and materials handling. It takes anywhere from 14 to 26 weeks to turnaround a typical custom order.

Starting out at Bridgeworks

Demco graduated from the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center business incubation program almost in 1997, which is around the time it started to provide custom turnkey automated systems, which later evolved into the proprietary Demco Wedge Base Machine Chassis and patented its technology.

This platform is a key element to Demco’s business today due to its flexible design, ability to be customized for clients, and reused for many years, thereby significantly reducing obsolescence that manufacturers see with competitors’ systems. “We build a customized system on a flexible platform which reduces obsolescence of machinery,” said Maund.

Company expansion due to demand

In March 2017 Demco moved from its existing 20,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility in Quakertown to a larger 35,000 sq. ft. facility also in Quakertown to keep up with client demand for its systems. “We’ve been bringing on new customers each year so we just had to expand,” Maund said. He attributes that growth to the quality of the products he makes and his long-term relationships with his clients.

“There is a growing need for automation in modern manufacturing today. The machines are getting more complex with the types of processes that they can handle compared to what they could do 10 to 20 years ago.”

Training the next generation of technicians

Demco’s relationship with Lehigh Career and Technical Institute allows him to funnel new technicians and machinists right into his company. He participates in a co-op program that allows the students to get hands-on training for half the day in his shop and the other half the day taking classes at school. And the best part for the students is that the on-the-job training is paid.

“We’re in constant need of machine builders, mechanical technicians, service technicians, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers,” Maund explained. “They are all needed to keep the machines maintained and running, and to minimize downtime when they do break down by knowing how to troubleshoot the problem, fix it, and get them up and running again.”

Maund encourages more manufacturers to offer on-the-job training for workers with a general technical knowledge or aptitude who don’t yet have the niche skill set that is required for the job. He also supports companies sending employees for additional training in mechatronics at local vocational-technical schools and community colleges.

Using automation to reshore American companies

“Thanks to certain types of automation, such as robotics, starting to come down in price, American manufacturers are slowly starting to realize that they can make their products here instead of abroad,” Maund explained.

“When companies factor in shipping costs, import taxes, customs, and time to transport goods by ship (typically 12 weeks or more), they can save money and still make a good profit by making the same product here at home. Plus, if the primary customer base for your product is here, then making your products here allows you to react more quickly to industry changes and event to tailor your product regionally to meet customer demand. More affordable automation systems will play a role in the gradual reshoring of American manufacturing companies.”

The future of automation in the U.S.

He says that workers and manufacturers alike shouldn’t fear automation. “Automation is necessary today in order to stay competitive both domestically and internationally,” Maund said. “As a company’s needs change and automation is brought in, the roles of the employees will change. They will need to be reallocated or redeployed so that the team can be used in different ways. That means retraining for some, and additional skills training for others.”

“Another way to look at it is this – companies will go out of business if they don’t automate in order to stay competitive,” Maund emphasized. “And that would lead to the closing or sale of the company and potentially to unemployment for all involved, and no one wants that. So, better to innovate now and adapt along with it versus the alternative!”

New Chairperson to Lead AEDC Board of Directors

Long-time board member will help drive the organization’s future achievements

Photo courtesy of Promise Neighborhoods

At its September meeting, the Board of Directors for the Allentown Economic Development Corporation elected Don Bernhard as its new Chairperson. Additionally, several other officer positions on the AEDC Board of Directors were filled. Vincent Tallarico of Lehigh Valley Health Network was appointed as Vice Chairperson, Matthew Green of PPL Corporation was appointed as Treasurer, and John Englesson of Integrity SBS was appointed as Secretary.

“After many years as an AEDC Board member playing a role in a long succession of impactful projects such as, the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, the LCCC building, property acquisitions for the PPL Arena, America on Wheels, and the Butz building, I am proud to assume the role of Chairman,” said Bernhard. “I have big shoes to fill succeeding Sy Traub who has led those accomplishments, but I look forward to leading AEDC as it executes on its sharpened focus on growing urban manufacturing and rehabilitating the industrial buildings that will enable that.”

Bernhard replaces Sy Traub who stepped down in August after serving on the AEDC board for nearly 20 years as its Chairperson. Traub felt that it was the ideal time for new leadership to take the helm of the organization.

“I have been very pleased to serve Allentown and the Lehigh Valley through AEDC as its board chair for 20 years,” said Traub. “During those years, AEDC helped lay the redevelopment groundwork for the renaissance that Allentown is experiencing. I am glad to hand over the chairmanship to my colleague Don Bernhard who will now lead AEDC on its primary mission of growing the manufacturing sector in Allentown.”

Bernhard is the Executive Director of the Downtown Allentown Community Development Initiative and has been involved with AEDC for many years. Bernhard is a Certified Economic Development Professional, one of only 13 in Pennsylvania to have attained that status with the International Economic Development Council.

“I am happy to be working with Don Bernhard in his new role as Chairperson,” stated AEDC Executive Director Scott Unger. “We would also like to thank Sy Traub for his many years of dedicated service to AEDC.”

During the August AEDC board meeting, a new ex officio position was created for the Chairperson of the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority, which will be filled by Traub. This allows AEDC and ANIZDA to strategically communicate and collaborate on various economic development projects creating a more cohesive strategy across the city.

The change in board leadership comes at a time where AEDC is ready to make some big strides.

“AEDC is at an exciting point in time. We are about to start major rehabilitation work at the former Allentown Metal Works site,” explained Unger. “The business incubator at the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center is operating at a very high capacity and the clients in the program are rapidly growing their companies. Plus, our loan programs are seeing increased activity recently and we’ve just been approved to expand one of them. We have some exciting opportunities ahead of us and we are in a great position to start thinking about what the next projects for AEDC are going to be.

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