Allentown Economic Development Corporation

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.

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