Friday, August 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Manufacturing

Gritty warehouses and manufacturing plants, each in its own squat building in the strip along State Street in Northeast Philadelphia - Joshua Berko's been to them all looking for work.

"I can't even find a job flipping burgers," said Berko, 23, who earned a GED after dropping out of high school. In his wallet, he carries a beat-up copy of his forklift operator's certificate.

Until he was laid off eight months ago, he earned $14 an hour as an entry-level machine operator, mixing chemicals at a union factory in upstate Pennsylvania.

"Now, I get up, sit on the stoop, and read the newspaper, or go . . . apply for jobs," he said. "I'd like to get up, get my coffee, and go to work."

For generations, a hardworking person, mostly men, with a high school diploma, or less, could count on a blue-collar job. But decades of factory closings ended those opportunities - until recently.

These days, factory jobs, especially the highly skilled machinist positions, are going begging - some because they are too technical for someone without a post-high-school education, some because manufacturing has a bad reputation, and some because the factories aren't near public transit.

"We've talked to companies who can't run a third shift because they can't find the people," said Anthony Girifalco, vice president of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a group that works with manufacturers.

"The irony is that we continue to send our young folks to four-year institutions to find themselves, at $40,000 or $50,000 a year," he said, "and they come out with a certain set of skills that aren't in demand in the market place."

Yes, hiring has picked up, but the increases since January 2010 have done little to erase the 5.4 million jobs lost nationally since 2000 - jobs gone through automation and the movement of work to Mexico, Turkey, China, and Malaysia.

In 1990, when Berko was the age of his infant son, 348,200 people were employed in manufacturing in the region, with 68,500 of those jobs in Philadelphia.

Now, Philadelphia factories employ 24,800, a subset of the region's 186,510. In 2008, Chrysler shut the doors of its sprawling plant in Newark, Del., putting 2,100 out of work, and last year, more than 800 refinery workers in Marcus Hook and Trainer lost jobs.

Since 2007, area factory jobs have gone abroad:

Federal-Mogul Corp., Exton, heat-shield production, to Japan, France, and China.

B. Braun Medical Inc., Cherry Hill, production of heart catheters, to Poland and the Dominican Republic.

Kulicke & Soffa Industries, Fort Washington, production of computer-chip-manufacturing equipment, to Singapore and China.

When Kulicke & Soffa moved its work, Bud Tyler, vice president at the EF Precision Group, a machining company in Willow Grove, felt the pain. Machining and repair for Kulicke was 30 percent of sales, supporting 115 employees. Now, there are 85.

"Kulicke & Soffa used to keep 100 machine shops like mine busy," Tyler said. "Now there are just a few left."

And while he'd like to hire a machinist, he can't afford the five years to train someone like Berko.

In Philadelphia, Berko relies on unemployment. When working, he had a car and an apartment, where he lived with his girlfriend and son.

Now, they're with her mother, and he's sleeping on a mattress in the basement of his brother's house. Berko sold the car to pay bills, which means he can't get to third-shift jobs in the suburbs.

"I'm hoping I can get a break, and someone will hire me," he said. "I'd like to have a house, a car, and some money to take the family out to eat once in a while."

 

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