Manufacturers want to fix the Philly area's talent pipeline

Andrew B. Varga, of Ball Corp., says his company is looking for millwrights and tool-and-die makers.

Because hiring manager Jim McKeown was talking to an audience, he wasn't sitting at a desk, his head in hands, but he may as well have been.

"I don't know where we are heading with manufacturing," he said, clearly discouraged. "The last 10 years have been difficult."

McKeown wasn't talking about sales, or business, or the supply chain, or the cost of raw materials - all important to such companies as Kingsbury Inc., which manufactures bearings in Philadelphia and Hatboro.

For him, and about 30 area manufacturers attending Tuesday's meeting of the Manufacturing Alliance of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, the issue is manpower.

There's not enough of it - and what there is is not young.

Nearly everyone with the mechanical skills that McKeown needs at Kingsbury is his age, he said, and he's been with Kingsbury for 38 years.

"The youth doesn't seem to have the energy or the initiative," he said. "I hope I'm wrong about them."

John Shegda disagreed.

"I'm a big fan of that generation," said Shegda, president of M&S Centerless Grinding Inc. in Hatboro and Meron Medical Inc. in Warminster - precision grinders for industry and medical devices.

"Over half our staff are millennials," he said, praising their adaptability.

But, he said, manufacturers need to romance them - to show them how their work on a product makes a difference, maybe keeping a jetliner aloft or a heart beating.

Shegda and McKeown were part of a panel of manufacturers sharing tips for finding people in a tightening labor market.

McKeown said his company has had some success using an outside recruiter. Of 17 people who have come in as temps, six have been permanently hired.

In the audience, Ball Corp. human-resources manager Andrew B. Varga was listening closely.

The Horsham company, which makes cans, employs 115 and wants to hire more. "The biggest problem is the technical area," Varga said. He's looking for millwrights and tool-and-die makers.

Barbara Getting, a human-resources manager at EST Group in Hatfield, has been looking since January for two machinists and wanted advice. "It's difficult," she said. "I feel like I'm not doing my job."

There was lots of advice.

Shegda, whose two companies employ about 35 people, said the key is to identify the company's culture and values and hire people who fit, with those things more important than skills.

Ryan Roberts, human-resources manager at Waste Gas Fabricating Co. in Fairless Hills, said he has become deeply involved on the boards of groups feeding the pipeline - area vo-tech high schools and Bucks County Community College's Metalworking Training Program.

That program is aimed at the underemployed and unemployed who are a little older than recent high school graduates.

"They are in their 20s and 30s, established with a family and a mortgage and bills. They know they have to work," Roberts said.

When interviewing millennials, make sure there is someone close to their age on the interviewing panel, suggested audience member John Trainor, staffing manager at Javan Engineering Inc. in Fort Washington

It was a sentiment echoed by panelist Rachel Howard, a human-resources staffer at First Quality Enterprises Inc., which manufactures diapers and wipes in King of Prussia.

For a quick fix, update a stodgy website so its text and photos tell a compelling story about the company, its products and people, said audience member Clara Console, a human-resources consultant.

K'nex's senior human-resources director, Lisa Christman, told the group her Hatfield-based toy-manufacturing company recently lost a talented young rising star because "our equipment wasn't modern enough."

"Millennials want to see their future," which does not include working on tools "their grandfathers might have used."

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

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@JaneVonBergen

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