Charles Newman would return home from work, his clothing so black that his wife washed it separate from the other laundry. His was a career forged building tires in Akron, Ohio, mostly for Goodyear. Niki Ryan, his granddaughter, and her cousin used to spend the night at Grandpa’s and Grandma’s, and Ryan remembers Grandma waking them in the wee hours of the morning to go pick Grandpa up. He worked a lot of third shifts. A lot of Saturdays. A lot of overtime. It was the late 1960s, and business boomed in what was then the rubber capital of the world.
These are the memories Niki Ryan shares when she explains why she didn’t want a career in manufacturing. “My grandpa was in a shop that was dirty and yucky,” she begins. “He’d come home, and the first thing he had to do was take a shower. I didn’t want to be dirty every day.”
When Ryan arrives home these days from the manufacturing job she’s worked for five years, she usually feeds the cat, makes dinner, and drives her daughter places. Her work is a cleaner manufacturing than her grandpa’s: She’s an assembly specialist for RBB, an electronics contract manufacturer that assembles printed circuit boards and industrial control panels, such as pneumatic and hydraulic controls, used by industries including medical device, automotive, and aerospace. She landed here after a layoff from the R and D industry, and “I really do like it,” she says. “I’ve worked with technology for the last 30 years. It’s what I know. And I like working with people who are really into their jobs, people who use their brains, and there are quite a few of them here.”
A handful of Ryan’s colleagues are answering a slew of questions about their manufacturing careers on a spring day in rural Wooster, Ohio, halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. Collectively, they have more than 100 years of manufacturing experience.
Do they have family and friends who also work in manufacturing? The response from the handful―all more senior workers for RBB―is a chorus of yeses. Have they heard that manufacturers can’t find the talent they need to fill positions? All say they know it firsthand and hear it from others. It’s hard to find qualified people, says Dave Thomas, an equipment engineer who’s spent three decades in manufacturing. People who come to work dependably. People with basic math, reading, and writing skills. People with a driver’s license. He hears the complaint from suppliers, customers, and his wife, who also works in manufacturing.
We are having a horrible time finding people.
Micki Hendrick chimes in next. As RBB’s director of finance and administration, she’s the one in charge of hiring to fill the company’s positions, which range from entry-level to skilled. “We are having a horrible time finding people,” she says. People who understand they might not start at $20 an hour. People interested in seizing opportunities to grow their skills and their pay. People who interview her as much as she interviews them. The company’s inability to find experienced candidates has RBB focused on hiring entry-level workers and teaching them the ropes.
Manufacturers are hungry for help. Nearly all 50 companies in the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition in Youngstown are in active hiring mode or would hire someone in one of the in-demand skilled positions, the hottest being machining, industrial maintenance, and welding, despite not having active job openings, says Jessica Borza, executive director of the coalition, a nonprofit consisting of roughly 50 manufacturers that work together to attract more people to manufacturing careers. “There is definitely not enough worker supply,” she says.
Or, some counter, perhaps there is not enough pay. (More on that to come.)
The sector’s appetite for workers is echoed in a 2018 survey of Cincinnati manufacturers by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Urban Manufacturing Alliance and in a separate survey of southwestern Pennsylvania manufacturers. The latter, a September 2018 Manufacturing Employment Demand Study for Southwestern Pennsylvania, revealed that 111 responding manufacturers were seeking to fill as many as 2,300 open positions, up to 730 of which were entry-level jobs not requiring a degree. The companies reported as many as 750 unfilled technical production positions, jobs such as machine operator and welder that require postsecondary education and on-the-job training. Most respondents had fewer than five openings for management and leadership positions, jobs ranging from supervisor to executive and typically requiring a bachelor’s degree, and engineering and professional jobs such as chemist, accountant, and engineer that require bachelor’s or advanced degrees.
Across most job types, then, a lack of applicants was and is a challenge.
Anecdotally, companies say it’s hardest to fill their technical production jobs, says Petra Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization serving small and medium-sized manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania. (It conducted the Manufacturing Employment Demand Study.)
Failed drug screens, a lack of qualified applicants, and a lack of applicants in general were the top causes for unfilled entry-level positions, according to that study. For unfilled technical production positions, a lack of applicants and competition with other manufacturers were the top causes, and for unfilled management/leadership and engineering/professional jobs, competition with other manufacturers, the compensation package, and a lack of qualified applicants were the top reasons. Across most job types, then, a lack of applicants was and is a challenge.
What is it manufacturers seek? David Evans, president and chief executive officer of TESSEC LLC, a precision machining company serving industries such as defense and aerospace, concurs that the hardest people to find now are those for mid-level technical roles. For his business, he can find entry-level people to push buttons to operate machines that whittle blocks of metal into what his customers ordered. What is harder to find are the people who set that kind of process into motion, who can take a customer “print,” or order, determine what machine and which cutting is needed, and then load material and ensure the machine’s cuts are made correctly.
“The person who can prove out that first job for you―take it from a print to a good product coming off the machine, that’s the person who’s harder to find right now,” Evans says. “Those are the people you need to keep new products coming into the company.”
Evans, also a member of the Cleveland Fed’s Cincinnati Branch board of directors, which regularly informs the Fed about the state of industry and the region the Cleveland Fed serves, seeks to hire people with mental and physical dexterity. When he hears that someone tinkers with cars or builds motorcycles, he takes a special interest because, to Evans, it shows passion. That same passion fuels Evans: He remembers, maybe in the third grade, building, flying, and crashing model airplanes, then fixing them. He earned his pilot’s license at 16 or 17 (he still flies a lot) and studied aeronautical engineering at MIT. One could say aviation’s in his blood: His grandfather James C. Evans, who also studied at MIT, holds design patents in the business.
Past blows to the heartland’s manufacturing ranks are one reason Evans suspects it’s difficult to find these workers. In places like Dayton, Ohio, where his company, TESSEC, is based, tool and die shops used to dot the map, with plenty of business to go around supporting the needs of larger companies such as General Motors and Delphi. “As plants closed, you just lost that talent,” he says. “You don’t have that feeder to go grab someone. The talent pool is low. We’re all competing and, to some degree, pulling people out of different industries.”
The bottom rungs of the industry's career ladder rotted.
Joel Elvery, a policy economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland who worked briefly as a machine operator before he attended college, shares another theory about how manufacturers ended up here. As technology has replaced certain manufacturing tasks that entry-level workers used to do, the bottom rungs of the industry’s career ladder rotted, he asserts. A lot of the “move-up” jobs, jobs in which a worker started with basic machines and trained up, are gone. For example, it used to be in machining that entry-level workers would run lower-precision machines to do rough, or initial, cutting of a part. Following that, entry-level workers would move the part to a more precise machine, operated by a more skilled machinist, for final cutting. Today, the rough cut and precision work often occur in the same machine, eliminating the entry-level operator job and also some entry-level parts-moving jobs. Now the operator of a machine that does multiple jobs at the same time needs to understand all of those operations, making it harder for someone without experience to do the job.
Manufacturers started to feel the squeeze of not having grown the skilled workforce they needed after US manufacturing lost 30 percent of its employment in the 2000s, but they didn’t feel it right away, Elvery says. At first, a large pool of laid-off workers was available for hire. When that pool dried up, the pipeline problem became apparent. (That unprecedented decline in jobs is detailed in Part I of “Manufacturing under Pressure,” as are the oft-debated reasons for it. Many point fingers at trade and globalization or automation.) Now, companies face a smaller pool of candidates with the skills needed at a time when many manufacturers need to replace workers who are retiring.
Many US students today aren't exposed to wood shop, metal shop, and the like.
The way Elvery sees it, that lack of qualified applicants is a problem manufacturers can solve. He has stressed in speeches around the region, “If this is the situation you are facing, if you want more programmers, more machinists, the answer is you train people. Nobody else can train the workers you need as well as you can.”
It used to be, and still is the case for companies that “do it right,” Elvery says, that a manufacturer hires people, trains them, and keeps the various rungs of its career ladder full. But when steel companies and other manufacturers collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s, many of their apprenticeship programs, which used to reliably train workers, ceased. Another reason manufacturers’ training isn’t what it used to be, others say, is the diminished number and power of unions, which tend to push for investing in workers.
Earlier education that builds skills manufacturers could use is lacking, too; many US students today aren’t exposed to wood shop, metal shop, and the like, says Jason Drake, director of education and workforce development for Dan T. Moore Company, which owns 10 manufacturing companies. It’s why the company is partnering to teach programs and stoke interest in manufacturing in neighborhoods such as Cleveland’s Collinwood, which used to be home to people who worked for the city’s manufacturers but today is home to many residents unaware they even live near manufacturers. One summer, Dan T. Moore Company partnered with local educators to run an “earn-a-bike” camp in which children were given bikes and taught to repair and replace every system on those bikes. The kids faced a steep learning curve, Drake says, but they learned to use tools and to take apart something mechanical and put it back together.
Too few people today learn to build and fix things with their hands, says Dan T. Moore, chief executive officer and chair of his namesake company. Moore remembers in the fifth grade taking a board, driving a nail through it, and using additional parts, all to make an electric motor. Everyone in class did it.
One reason for the lack of exploration of and interest in manufacturing, Drake asserts, is the widespread urging that children attain a higher education. “There was a period of time when statistics were pushed that a kid with only a high school diploma and no vocational training is going to make $1 million less than a person with a college degree,” Drake says. “This is how we got into this standardized testing, this is how we got into the notion that every kid needs to go to college. That push for college has cut off pathways to the trades for students.”
Back in Wooster, every one of the five RBB employees nods in agreement when one of their colleagues makes this point: More exposure is needed for students early in high school to the idea that manufacturing is a viable career.
Why didn't someone tell us about these career paths sooner?
“There’s so much more we need to do to introduce students to a wide variety of opportunities,” says Mitchell of Catalyst Connection. “We talked with a group of community college students [pursuing welding careers], and they were almost resentful. ‘Why didn’t someone tell us about these career paths sooner?’ they asked.”
Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and job seekers want to know what the jobs of today and tomorrow are. They are and can be in manufacturing, and opportunities such as site visits to and job shadows with local manufacturers and “manufacturing days” inside schools and companies help inform students about these types of careers, Mitchell says.
But an array of challenges, among them plant closures and layoffs and negative perceptions about manufacturing and its jobs, don’t help Mitchell—or anyone else—make the pitch.
David Megenhardt remembers the arms on his dad, Junior Megenhardt, made large by Junior’s manual labor wrapping wire around poles to make firehoses for BFGoodrich in Akron, Ohio. Most of the 40 years Junior worked for BFGoodrich he spent making these wire skeletons over which rubber was poured to produce thick firehoses that wouldn’t burst. Without the wire, water pressure would make quick work of the rubber alone. Junior took pride in his “rough and tumble” career, but when the bottom fell out of Akron’s rubber industry in the early 1980s, BFGoodrich laid Junior off. It was a definite blow.
Such unceremonious ends to many a loyal worker’s career and our collective memory of those careers cut short can make recruiting people to manufacturing a hard sell.
“For my dad’s generation, there was no question that manufacturing was a job that was going to last forever and that it paid well and you could raise a family on it,” says David Megenhardt, executive director of Cleveland-based United Labor Agency and a member of the Cleveland Fed’s main office board of directors (the Bank has three boards of directors and advisory councils, too). “It’s different now because manufacturers did move, and they did close. There are still remnants, still hulking ruins of factories around, impressive places that are left abandoned. So it’s often, ‘Well, those jobs are gone.’ The hard part for manufacturers and educators is, can you convince parents to get kids into manufacturing? What’s happened in the past depresses that impulse.”
We don't want Lordstown to be the only story.
Moms and dads, grandparents and great-grandparents in the Mahoning Valley still speak of Black Monday, the day (September 19, 1977) when Youngstown Sheet & Tube, the area’s largest steel manufacturer, shuttered its doors, costing thousands of people their jobs, says Borza of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition. And in 2019 came another crushing blow to the region when GM “unallocated” the local Lordstown plant, displacing some 1,600 workers. GM had already cut two other shifts in recent years. “That’s a big headline, and it has a big impact on our community,” Borza says. “What is also true and what we feel is really important is there is so much good news in Youngstown. We don’t want Lordstown to be the only story.” (In January 2020 came the news that GM and LG Chem have selected a vacant Lordstown property as the site for GM’s new battery-cell plant, which is expected to create 1,100 new jobs.)
“There’s a sense of optimism in Youngstown that I can feel,” Borza adds. “I’ve been working in Youngstown for close to 15 years, and there’s a stronger sense of collaboration than when I was first introduced to leaders in Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley, a recognition that we all really need to work together to capitalize on the assets that we have and to continue to grow our community.”
Even against the backdrop of closures, manufacturing is still the biggest economic driver in the Mahoning Valley in terms of sales and gross domestic product compared to other sectors such as government and retail, and it offers some “really strong” career opportunities today, Borza says. “We have many small and medium-sized manufacturers that have done quite well,” she says. “They continue to grow and thrive.”
Borza stresses the importance of diversification.
“They [companies] have learned to diversify themselves, their customer base, so they can withstand economic changes,” she says. “It’s important for companies to diversify. The more highly diversified companies are, the better, more stable they will be. One of the reasons people do not choose manufacturing for themselves or for young people—their students, their kids—is because they perceive it to be unstable.”
Increasingly, manufacturing leaders are learning to plan for and minimize shocks to their workforces and companies, Borza says, leading to greater stability. After the Lordstown news broke, Borza rang a company in the GM supply chain, concerned that it would need to lay off apprentices. Instead, she learned the company anticipated not a single layoff because unlike the last time GM cut business locally, the company produces parts today for almost every automaker.
Attracting more people to manufacturing also requires addressing the stigma that many people, particularly parents, assign to it: that it’s loud, oily, and dangerous—and undesirable because of all three.
Some manufacturing is loud, oily, and potentially dangerous. On a spring day inside Soundwich, one of the manufacturing companies in Cleveland owned by Dan T. Moore Company, Alex Papadopulos stands near Press 14, a 25-foot-tall piece of equipment that whooshes like a county fair ride each time 600 tons of force stamps the raw material it’s shaping into metal vehicle parts. A general manager, Papadopulos has his ear plugs off and a wide smile on as he explains the workings of the gargantuan machine whose innards drip lubricant as they open and close. For people’s safety, if someone or something crosses lights that reach across Press 14, an emergency stop occurs in a fraction of a second. Papadopulos, 32, says the career he leads today wasn’t an option presented as viable during primary and secondary school or college. He holds an engineering degree, and his professors highlighted using that education in research and design, not on a shop floor.
Manufacturing has this stigma in America of being old and low-tech.
“Manufacturing has this stigma in America of being old and low-tech,” he says. “But the manufacturers that are thriving, they have to be creative and intelligent in finding ways to be efficient and more productive.” Dan T. Moore Company’s workers are encouraged to regularly spearhead new products to meet unmet needs, for example.
Those turned off by loud, oily, and potentially dangerous needn’t write off a career in manufacturing, however. For example, inside RBB in Wooster, the floors look spotless, white steam rises softly from one piece of equipment, and the air carries only a light whir. Behind a bright yellow sign—Attention: Static control area—workers and visitors alike wear grounding straps on their shoes inside a 22,000-square-foot production area. If they impart static electricity to the parts inside, frying them, the printed circuit boards might not work—a serious risk given that most of what RBB builds is headed for critical items such as medical devices.
A young man once told Borza of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, “I know a lot of people who need jobs, but I’m not going to refer them to manufacturing jobs if they’re dead-end positions.” Words like his, she says, help the coalition understand the information and programming needed to make manufacturing jobs accessible and appealing to more people.
What’s needed is higher wages, some argue. If manufacturers are having such a hard time attracting workers, shouldn’t they pay more to compete?
“Even though manufacturers tout that theirs is a different environment now―it’s not as dirty, it’s not as hazardous as factories of the old―there are still places where the manufacturing process is difficult,” United Labor Agency’s Megenhardt says. “It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s dirty, and the pay [to work there] is commensurate with other jobs that aren’t those things. If you’re paying $12 an hour, you’re competing with everything from Amazon to a casino to a restaurant.”
Manufacturers responding to a late 2019 survey of employers by the United Labor Agency contended, however, that they can’t pass higher wage costs on to their customers. Only about 8 percent of respondents said they thought raising wages would solve their hiring problem, Megenhardt says.
“There’s some reticence,” he says. “They say, ‘We’re paying fairly for the skills that we’re asking for,’ and we’re like, ‘Well, times have changed. Maybe that pay was fair during the recession.’”
For its part, Wooster-based RBB can’t compete with the higher starting pay offered by larger corporations, in part because of increasing healthcare costs, says Micki Hendrick, who does the company’s hiring. So RBB tries to use benefits as much as pay to incentivize people to join its ranks. “I’m sure we are missing out on people because they opt for higher-paid jobs,” Hendrick says.
Like entry-level work in retail and food service, entry-level manufacturing jobs pay lower wages. “Wages are definitely an issue” that hampers recruitment efforts, Catalyst Connection’s Mitchell says. “They’re not as low as minimum wage, but it’s hard. Manufacturers can’t pay someone without skills 25 dollars an hour. But progression can be much more rapid in manufacturing, I think, than it is working in fast food.”
Manufacturers also note that plenty of the jobs they seek to fill are not low-wage and afford workers room for growth. Dan T. Moore Company employs some 600 people. Some workers make $80,000―even six figures―a year running machines, Moore says. Across the industry, welders possessing the right certification can start at $50,000 annually. Post-secondary education and on-the-job training can be one’s ticket to such careers.
Sixty-eight percent of US residents age 25 years and older do not have a four-year college degree.
Sixty-eight percent of US residents age 25 years and older do not have a four-year college degree, according to a 2019 report on “opportunity occupations” by community development researchers at the Cleveland and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks. Opportunity occupations are jobs accessible to workers without a bachelor’s degree that typically pay above the national annual median wage ($37,690). In some metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the industrial heartland, among them Toledo, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky, manufacturing occupations such as assembling and fabricating top the list of such occupations. (The Fed explores in this documentary short, filmed in Toledo, how one mother’s life changed when she began working a job that fits the criteria. Top opportunity occupations for Toledo and 120 other MSAs are viewable here.)
Given the ever-rising cost of college and the reality that not everyone who’s talented excels at school, manufacturing leaders proudly promote that their industry offers people without a four-year degree the opportunity of a middle-class lifestyle. “It’s getting harder to find jobs that give you a career path and good pay for a long time without a college degree,” concurs Cleveland Fed policy economist Elvery.
Many in manufacturing note how companies often give employees the opportunity, while working, to train and advance through apprenticeships and to earn credits toward associate and bachelor’s degrees.
Niki Ryan, the assembly specialist at RBB whose grandfather’s dirty career dissuaded her from pursuing manufacturing work, doesn’t have a college degree. She quit high school, got her GED, and in her late 20s opted to go to technical school to learn electronics. Her mom had worked for an electronics company, which also hired Ryan, and that experience stoked an interest. At the end of 18 months at technical school, Ryan graduated with a diploma. RBB has taught her to do the work she does now. “I’m learning everything there is to learn,” she says. “You can grow in this industry. You can start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Not enough people know manufacturing affords these opportunities—to work without a four-year degree, advance along a career path, earn a livable wage, and pursue higher education while making money—say many working in and advocating for the sector.
There are repercussions to manufacturers’ not finding the people they’re seeking. There’s the drag on the companies themselves: The skilled worker shortage is creating challenges such as needing to pay overtime and limited growth and profitability. But the impact reaches well beyond plants. The sector’s ability to find and retain the workforce it needs has implications for whole communities. Countless sectors thrive when manufacturers do a brisk business and buy other sectors’ services.
The health of a community is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood.
“Manufacturing can power an economy,” Megenhardt says. “It brings money into a community when manufacturers produce products that are exported to the rest of the world. If you understand that the health of a community is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood, then we need to think about what jobs people will do and how they can support themselves.”
The manufacturing of the past (with its big union shops, for example) is gone, and RBB’s Hendrick doesn’t think it’s coming back, she says during the interview with her colleagues in Wooster. Still, she talks strength when she talks future.
Strong manufacturing is based [on] the companies that are willing to commit to the workforce but have the workforce commit to them as well.
“Strong manufacturing is based [on] the companies that are willing to commit to the workforce but have the workforce commit to them as well,” she says. “Manufacturing needs to work as a team for common goals. It’s up to us to create the new manufacturing going forward: the companies with new attitudes and the workers with new attitudes.”
Knowing well the opportunities manufacturing offers to people with and without four-year degrees and the sector’s acute need for workers at all levels, people are working to change minds (and attitudes), improve the industry, and find, train, and retain the next generation that can propel manufacturing forward.
Up next: "Part III: Adapting and Gearing Up in the Heartland." | Explore the full "Manufacturing under Pressure" series.