Ask life-long Lehigh Valley residents where their parents and grandparents worked back in the day and they’re bound to list a number of large, local manufacturers. The factory jobs ranged from steelmaking to building trucks to spinning silk into garments. Many consisted of hard physical work over long days in dirty, loud, or even dangerous conditions.
Over the years, some of these manufacturers have closed and new ones have started up. And while the companies might have changed, manufacturing is very much alive throughout the region. But it isn’t like what your parents or grandparents experienced.
The modernization of manufacturing in America has led to the increased use of automation – machines that are custom designed to perform basic, and sometimes more advanced, repetitive functions that had previously been done by workers.
In the 1980s and 1990s automation was seen as the enemy, as factory workers feared it would take their jobs away. But for the most part the jobs that the machinery replaced weren’t lost but rather reallocated within the company. Workers had to develop new skill sets in order to work with the machines.
“Concerns about job loss due to automation were largely overstated back then,” said George Lewis, Director of Research and Analysis at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. “It was not apocalyptic at all. It just meant that companies had to rethink how to utilize their workforce differently, and employees had to be willing to undergo skilled training.”
Long-term impact of a cultural shift
Like the rest of the country, the Lehigh Valley is seeing a large decline in the number of trained technicians to do automated manufacturing work. This is due in large part to a cultural shift that happened many years ago, which placed a greater priority on attaining a four-year college education in order to secure a comfortable office job as opposed to laborious work in factories. So fewer students have been attending vocational or technical schools and instead, have been going the college prep route. That, coupled with a large number of older employees in manufacturing jobs who are starting to retire, equals a shortage.
“Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and students often don’t have a realistic understanding of what manufacturing is like today, so there is pushback on suggesting it as a career path,” said Karianne Gelinas, Director of Talent Supply for LVEDC. “The expectations and demands are very different today. A completely different set of skills is needed to work in manufacturing now.”
“In the old days, you just had to have a strong back to get hired at a local manufacturer where you were trained on the job, and worked there for life,” explained Jack Pfunder, President and CEO of Manufacturers Resource Center. “Today it’s not a strong back that you need but rather a strong mind. And while some companies still offer on-the-job training to expand your skills, you still need to have a basic skill set to get hired.”
Today’s manufacturers are hiring highly skilled workers for jobs as maintenance mechanics and machinists who understand how a machine operates. Their mechanical aptitude allows them to not only run the machine, but also to troubleshoot when it breaks down, and even to repair it.
“The days of hiring three different people to do all those things are over,” explained Pfunder. “Today we need one employee that knows how to do all of it. That controls costs while minimizing machine downtime.”
To acquire the needed skills, an employee must attend a technical school or take classes at a community college. Some employers offer on-the-job training to help up-train their existing employees, and occasionally they can obtain workforce grants to help subsidize the cost.
Understanding the manufacturing workforce
LVEDC collects data from local manufacturers about the workforce and the types of skills and training they need from employees. Its last study in this area was done three years ago and a data refresh is planned for sometime in the near future.
“Our past studies consisted of data primarily from the region’s larger employers, but this time we want to focus on including the smaller companies with 50-100 employees so that our data is representative of the entire manufacturing workforce in the region, big and small,” said Lewis. “We want to know what skills their employees have and what they are lacking so we can learn where the gap is. Then we can communicate these findings to the larger educational community. These studies help us to get a better handle on the supply and demand in the local labor force.”
LVEDC also aims to keep an open communication loop with the area’s manufacturing stakeholders so they understand what kinds of training programs are available at the Lehigh Valley’s community colleges and technical schools. This can help to build a career pathway for students entering the workforce. “We get the stakeholders together to review our study’s findings and to discuss it. This keeps them engaged and at the table, working with us,” Lewis said.
Manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley today
In 2015, manufacturing was $5.5 billion of the region’s gross domestic product. It experienced 16.5 percent growth between 2011 and 2015. According to the fourth quarter 2016 U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics report more than 33,000 people are employed in local manufacturing jobs at between 600 and 700 manufacturers.
“Manufacturing is still growing here,” said Gelinas. “It doesn’t necessarily look like it did before but it’s still relevant. And most importantly, it’s a key target sector for LVEDC to attract companies into the Lehigh Valley.”
“The next generation in manufacturing is automation,” Pfunder said. “Companies need to use it to stay competitive and to modernize. We’re working on recruiting more young people who are soon to be entering the workforce to train for jobs in the industry, while also encouraging unemployed or underemployed workers to consider it as a career. And we also need to up-train today’s manufacturing workers to do these technical roles so they can keep their jobs and continue to grow.”
Pfunder summed up his view on the situation this way: “The bottom line is that skilled jobs lead to better income, and thereby a better quality of life. Who wouldn’t want that?”