Bucks and Montgomery County manufacturers are meeting Wednesday morning to talk about a key issue - after years of declines in manufacturing employment, they are facing looming shortages of highly skilled workers.
"It's a huge problem," said Lisa Christman, senior human resources director at the K'nex toy manufacturing company in Hatfield and one of the organizers of Wednesday's meeting.
Christman doesn't have to walk far from her office at K'nex to the factory floor, where injection molding machines spit out the brightly colored rods and connectors that combine to create construction-toy roller coasters and Ferris wheels.
From her vantage point, she can see some of her company's most important employees - the 18 toolmakers who create the molds that are the heart of the operation.
A third of them, she said, are within 10 years of retirement. Experienced toolmakers are hard to find and "a toolmaker takes 10 years to become proficient."
"We're not the only ones" worried about a skills gap. There are also shortages, she said, in people trained to be machinists and setup technicians.
So eager are the area's manufacturers to address the issue of a looming shortage of skilled manufacturing employees that they are forming their own grassroots group - the Bux-Mont Manufacturing Consortium. The Wednesday meeting, to be at the North Montco Technical Career Center in Lansdale, is its second.
On the agenda are discussions of how to engage trade schools in the region to build a talent pipeline and a review of existing training funding and availability through government workforce investment boards and community colleges.
The group was just beginning to galvanize last spring when the Middle Bucks Institute of Technology announced that it would close its precision machining program. Enrollment had dwindled to five students.
Local manufacturers rallied, unsuccessfully, to keep the program open.
In the fall, the Bucks County Workforce Investment Board chose the school to host a manufacturing job fair. Nearly every manufacturer that set up a table at the event was looking for a machinist.
Some said that they would hire a machinist even without an immediate opening, just to get them on the payroll.
K'nex toolmakers earn between $18 and $30 an hour, and must work 55 hours weekly. Even the lowest paid earns more than $1,100 a week with overtime.
"What we have to do is make sure that manufacturing jobs are attractive to parents, teachers, and students," Christman said.
Meanwhile, the fledgling consortium, through the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, has already been networking to explore the possibilities of a training program aimed at teaching basic manufacturing skills such as shop math, precision measuring, and blueprint reading.
The DVIRC is a partially government-funded group set up to aid manufacturers with business issues. Last Thursday and Friday, the DVIRC organized a presentation from M.O.S.T., or Mobile Outreach Skills Training.
M.O.S.T. houses its training lab, with computer simulated welding and basic machining, in a tractor-trailer or bus, parked last week outside DVIRC's offices in the Navy Yard.
"I'm struggling to find qualified people that have good mathematics skills," said Dawn Thompson, who attended a session Thursday. She's a human resources manager at Fiber-Line Inc.
"Recruiting for the third shift is impossible," she said. She's looking for basic manufacturing workers, who will earn $13 an hour, more for the night shift. Last year, she hired 33 entry-level machine operators.
The M.O.S.T. program, run by TimeWise Management Systems in Florida, parks its training van in the employer's parking lot. It handles initial recruiting and the employer commits to hiring anyone who makes it through the two-week training period.
Half of the training is Manufacturing 101 - blueprint reading, shop math, safety, and principles of lean manufacturing. The second half is custom, with software designers from M.O.S.T creating programs to teach precisely what each individual manufacturer requires.
"I'm very interested," Thompson said.
Each truck can accommodate at least 10 students and manufacturers can share, as long as they can agree on the curriculum. The training is designed to replicate job conditions. For example, if jobs are on the overnight shift, that's when the training is done. It weeds out those who can't handle the hours.
After the two weeks, four months of on-the-job training follow, with a mentoring relationship continuing for six months. The cost is about $8,000 an employee, but director Claudia Follett told the group that government training money was sometimes available, especially for laid-off workers or veterans.