Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Wanted, not wanted: Factory workers

Right now, there are open positions for manufacturing workers at Blommer Chocolate Co. in upper Montgomery County. The plant's director of operations, Chris Milligan, told me that even hourly workers are hard to find. I wondered why, but then I got an email that gave me a clue.

Wanted, not wanted: Factory workers

Part of the manufacturing process at Blommer Chocolate Co. in East Greenville.
Part of the manufacturing process at Blommer Chocolate Co. in East Greenville.

Right now, there are open positions for manufacturing workers at Blommer Chocolate Co. in upper Montgomery County. The plant's director of operations, Chris Milligan, told me that even hourly workers are hard to find. I wondered why, but then I got an email that gave me a clue.

Let's start with the problem: "There are a few manufacturing plants in the area and we are all have struggles to find people who are willing to work in manufacturing," he told me as he and I toured through the plant with his boss, Peter Blommer, the company president and part of the third generation to run the 75-year-old Chicago-based chocolate manufacturing company. The jobs pay $12 to $16 an hour

Why is it a problem? In my mind, I was thinking of the many unemployed people in the cities of Philadelphia or Allentown. Obviously, locating a plant in East Greenville, in the middle of farm country isn't going to make it easy for people to commute. The plant employs 250, and not surprisingly, smells delicious. The company now runs three shifts and is expanding, meaning 30 to 40 more jobs in the coming years, Blommer said.. 

Milligan and the others I've heard making this complaint usually talk about how the younger generation simply doesn't consider manufacturing. "It's hard to find young people who want to go into manufacturing," he said. Milligan has been working with the local school district to appeal to the graduates who aren't going to college, but aren't sure what they want to do.

"We're putting a program together that says, `Hey, you might not have a plan after high school, but if you get a job, you can earn some money and spend some time developing your plan.'"

I met Milligan on April 1, while I was interviewing Blommer for a story on the company that was published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer and a Leadership Agenda interview that ran in Monday's Inquirer. After talking to him I wondered, Yeah, why aren't more people interested in this?

A few days later, while scrolling through my emails, I had an answer. As quickly as manufacturers are looking for people, they are just as quickly trying to get rid of them.

Next month, Gov. Tom Corbett will honor dozens of companies for their job-creating capabilities. One of them, honored in the Export category, Packaging Progressions Inc., a manufacturing company in Collegeville, isn't too far away from Blommer Chocolate. No doubt they are creating jobs in their company, and kudos to them, but they are creating jobs by mechanizing manufacturing processes, so fewer workers  are needed in manufacturing.

Their website includes a case study: Packaging Progressions Inc. designed a manufacturing system that inserted sheets of wax paper between individual frozen crusts of pizza dough for a pizza company with 52 restaurants in Kentucky and Ohio and a separate business packing pizzas for commercial clients. Before Packaging Progressions stepped in, pizza company employees inserted the paper by hand, which was "slow and labor intensive."

After the system was installed: "In addition to their dependability and consistency, the plant manager estimates that the PacProInc. systems increased production speeds by 20 percent with one-third fewer workers."

There's no fault to this. It's inevitable. Mechanization has been going on forever. Think robotics. It's among the chief reasons that manufacturing employment has declined over the decades. And obviously these are two separate companies. 

Maybe young people have seen their parents replaced by machines, particularly during the recession and the recovery when companies had money to spend, but didn't spend it on hires. Maybe there's a reason young people don't want to go into manufacturing.

Here's another perspective on this, similar to Milligan's, published in the Rodon Co.'s blog. Rodon manufactures K'nex construction toys and is based in Hatfield. Click here to read my Leadership Agenda profile of its CEO, Michael Araten. The blog post, written by Paula Hynes, stresses the disconnect between millenials and manufacturing.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
About this blog

Jobbing covers the workplace – employment, unemployment, management, unions, legal issues, labor economics, benefits, work-life balance, workforce development, trends and profiles.

Jane M. Von Bergen writes about workplace issues for the Inquirer.

Married to a photographer she met at her college newspaper, Von Bergen has been a reporter since fourth grade, covering education, government, retailing, courts, marketing and business. “I love the specific detail that tells the story,” she says.

Reach Jane M. at jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

Jane M. Von Bergen Inquirer Staff Writer
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