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October 5, 2008
There are 1,600 manufacturing businesses in the nine-county Rochester region.
The average employee at these companies makes more than $57,000 a year, or about $28 per hour, not including benefits.
Firms are hiring, there's plenty of room for advancement and the vast majority of positions require a two-year degree or less.
And for some reason, nobody wants a job.
Misconceptions regarding work conditions, salaries and the industry's future have led to a shrinking manufacturing work force in what business leaders and economists say should be a growth sector.
"We would hire 20 people right now if we could find those who were qualified," said Brian McMahon, vice president of MWI Inc., a graphite machining shop in Henrietta.
The numbers tell one story, and it's a story you've heard before: Outsourcing, increased automation and high-tech machinery are making the assembly line worker, formerly the backbone of the American economy, virtually obsolete. In New York state, the manufacturing sector has lost more than 3 percent of its work force in the past year.
But among students, the backlash against pursuing a manufacturing career has been so strong that many area employers have seen their growth stunted due to sheer lack of job applicants.
In short, there are lots of high-tech gizmos lining the floors of area factories but not enough qualified people to operate them.
"If you look at any labor report that you care to look at, you'll invariably see that manufacturing jobs are declining," said Mike Mandina, president of Optimax Systems Inc., an optics manufacturer in Ontario, Wayne County. "The problem is, you can't get into the statistics to identify what kinds of manufacturing jobs are declining. The technology workers of the 21st century, those jobs are increasing."
A study by Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies found that area manufacturers have an average of 4.7 work force vacancies. Despite steadily climbing unemployment in the region, there are literally thousands of manufacturing positions that employers are desperate to fill.
Normally, the job market follows the consumer supply-and-demand model. As demand for a certain type of employee increases, more students enter the field and eventually the market reaches equilibrium.
In manufacturing, that hasn't happened. In 2000, 76 students graduated from Monroe Community College's Machining and Tooling Program. In 2007, there were 27 graduates.
The image of the American assembly line worker of the early 20th century has been romanticized to some extent; the factory employee who clocks out after an eight-hour day and heads to the neighborhood bar in a dirty jumpsuit has become the portrait of the classic blue-collar worker. But industry leaders say that perception hinders their ability to hire.
"It's still viewed as the same type of manufacturing they were doing years ago — dirty jobs and so forth — when the exact opposite is true nowadays," said Dan Gersbach, shop supervisor at G.W. Lisk Co. Inc., a manufacturer of electro-mechanical products in Clifton Springs, Ontario County.
"People think it's a dirty environment," said Charlie Schaufelberger, co-owner of Unique Automation LLC, a motion control and fluid power distributor in Palmyra. "But in some of these places you can eat off the floors."
G.W. Lisk and Unique Automation are members of the Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturers' Enterprise (FAME), a group of businesses headed by Optimax's Mandina that formed last year with a goal of getting more students into manufacturing fields.
The group spreads awareness among students, teachers and guidance counselors in a bid to raise enrollment in vocational programs, two-year technical colleges and adult Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs.
"A hundred years ago, George Eastman helped the Mechanics Institute, which is now RIT, and he made sure people were being trained," said Brian Hickman, president of Coach and Equipment Manufacturing Corp. in Penn Yan, a mid-sized bus manufacturer and member of FAME.
"Well, we don't have a George Eastman around now, so a lot of small companies have to band together."
Members of FAME have ramped up their internship programs in the hope that once they get prospective employees in the door, they can convince them to stay. Many of the companies are willing to provide formal on-the-job training and some will pay for college machining courses for their employees.
And the money's not bad. Average manufacturing salaries are topped by only two other industries: utilities and finance. Schaufelberger said his company pays entry-level employees between $16 and $30 per hour, depending on the position.
"There are parents who come into the open houses and ask if they can apply for jobs because they didn't know we paid so much," said Schaufelberger.
Despite the overall decline in manufacturing employment, the sector is still a large part of the regional economy. In the nine-county area — Monroe, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Wayne, Wyoming, Seneca and Yates — employees in manufacturing accounted for 15 percent of the work force and 21 percent of wages paid in 2007.
The $4.7 billion in manufacturing wages far outpaced those of any other field; health care was second at $2.5 billion.
But 2000 census data pegged the average age of manufacturing workers at 43.3 years old, and Mandina said that has undoubtedly risen over the past eight years. With an aging work force and a shrinking pool of graduates to hire from, open positions often remain vacant for months or years.
A static or decreasing work force in the sector could lead to trouble in other sectors. On top of the vast number of people the industry employs on its own, manufacturing also carries a high job "multiplier." The Public Policy Institute of New York reported that one manufacturing job creates 2.7 jobs in other sectors.
Spreading awareness is the first step in generating more interest. The Rochester Tooling and Manufacturing Association started the "Best Job You Never Heard Of" marketing campaign in 2007. The association also recently held a "Boot Camp for Jobs" program where 23 young job-seekers went through a paid training session at Rochester's Edison Technical and Occupational Center, learning about various aspects of manufacturing. Twenty-one found jobs.
FAME and its members are attempting to start even earlier, sponsoring a middle school program called the First Lego League, where middle schoolers build functional robots out of Lego building blocks.
The effects of such programs may not be seen for years. But Mandina said that area manufacturers have to be proactive and get involved in their own backyards if they want to bring people back to the industry.
"FAME's approach is that we're working grassroots," said Mandina. "If we can get manufacturers to get enlightened about their responsibilities, and if we can get a few teachers and administrators reaching out, and once we start demonstrating it works, then everybody's going to get in line."