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York's economic leaders fight misconceptions
Grace Myers, a 16-year-old junior at York County School of Technology, is confident that she wants to follow in her brother’s footsteps as a machinist for a local manufacturing company.
“I like starting with nothing and then just creating something useful,” said Myers, one of three girls currently enrolled in the school’s precision machining technology program.
Unfortunately for York’s many manufacturing companies, Myers’ career aspirations aren’t representative of the majority in her generation.
“One of the things we hear from our members over the years is it’s been difficult to recruit recent college graduates,” said Loren Kroh, interim CEO for the York County Economic Alliance. “The thinking is (York) is a great place to raise a family, but when you’re young and don’t have a family, (places such as) Atlanta, New York, Boston, the lights are much brighter.”
The county’s economic leaders are working to challenge long-held beliefs of what quantifies success and improve the size and skills of a shrinking available workforce in order to continue recruiting high-profile businesses to the area.
Importance of manufacturing: Employing more than 30,000 people in York County, the manufacturing sector has the highest employment among the 20 industries for which the state Department of Labor and Industry keeps statistics, according to March 2015 data.
With an average yearly wage of $56,784, manufacturing is also the fifth-highest-paid industry in the county. The four above it — Utilities; Management of Companies and Enterprises; Finance and Insurance; and Mining, Quarrying and Oil and Gas Extraction — combine to employ fewer than 9,200.
However, the manufacturing industry’s employment numbers are dropping, down more than 6,000 employees since March 2008.
One of the issues is an aging workforce — the median age of manufacturing workers in the U.S. is nearly 45 years old, compared to 42.5 in all industries, according to 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Tom Palisin, executive director of the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania, said the industry is having trouble attracting a younger workforce due to misconceptions.
“Manufacturing has this perception of it’s low-paying and dirty and low-skill, very hard labor,” he said. “A lot of these companies are brightly lit, high-tech, working with computers, working with teams, need to have a lot of skills. It’s not where it was 20 to 40 years ago.”
Programs in place: Kroh said maturing students need to be made aware of their options and have their expectations managed.
“Every parent thinks they’ve got to get that picture with their son or daughter in the cap and gown after slogging through four years of college,” Kroh said. “Is that the best fit for everybody?”
One of the alliance's initiatives to improve the situation is its partnership with the York County Alliance for Learning on the Careers in Two Years initiative, which promotes career opportunities in manufacturing and health care that are available with education and training that can be completed in two years or less.
The Manufacturers' Association, meanwhile, has partnered with 29 manufacturers in the region on an apprenticeship program, according to Palisin.
"That's one of the keys to the workforce issue," Palisin said. "Companies need to take more of a hands-on approach to developing their own workforce as opposed to hoping that, in the pool of workers that are out there, they can find these skilled people available, come out of schools ready to go, and that’s just not the case."
Palisin added that there has been high interest among local manufacturing companies in working with high schools.
York County School of Technology has helped champion that effort with programs including precision machining technology and welding/metal fabrication.
Terry Jamison, in his 13th year as instructor of the precision machining technology program, said he typically averages around 50 students total in his classes each year.
Students work hands-on with manufacturing equipment, including computer numerical control (CNC) machinery, and take apprenticeships with local companies during the school year.
Myers, the 16-year-old junior who plans on starting her career as a machinist, isn't an anomaly in Jamison's classes, where he said 11 of 12 graduating seniors are planning on stepping straight into the manufacturing workforce.
The concern with these programs and efforts is scale, Palisin said, with student interest level not high enough to fully replace the aging workforce.
Precision Metal Machinery teacher Terry Janison works with junior Grace Myers on the CNC Lathe Tuesday, March 22, 2016, at York County School of Technology. Amanda J. Cain
Younger workforce needed: The aging workforce is an issue across York County, Kroh said, with companies searching for answers on how to recruit young professionals.
At a recent York College career fair, sophomore hospitality majors Lauren Stoner and Allison Bernstein discussed their future plans, saying a good job might keep them in York after graduating, but not for long.
"I would like to move to New York, not stay here my whole life," Stoner, a York County native, said. "I want to bounce around, see where I fit, go from cool job to cool job."
Natalie Speece, a PinnacleHealth System recruiter, said keeping workers in one place after college is more difficult than it was in the past.
"Our parents stayed in jobs for 30 plus years; we stay for three to five (years)," said Speece, who's been at Pinnacle for two years. "People make moves differently."
With a diminishing available labor pool — York's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in February — economic leaders are trying to ensure more of those students' moves include stops in York County.
Ellie Lamison, senior manager of workforce development for the economic alliance, said her office is promoting the Creativity Unleashed brand.
"We promote the great stuff that is happening here in York," Lamison said of the campaign. "We promote cost-of-living advantages to being here, while still having the opportunity to be close enough to larger metropolitan areas that are of interest."
The alliance will need to increase York's available workforce to continue its efforts to recruit businesses to the area.
The alliance's high-priority retention and recruitment targets include manufacturing, health care and business and financial services companies, Lamison said.
Companies looking to move or expand typically remain anonymous through the search process by employing a site-selection firm, according to Kroh.
"That's why it's so important for us to establish such a great reputation for services that we provide and our ability to facilitate discussions with municipalities," Kroh said, adding that available workforce is a major factor site selection firms consider during the process.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all data comes from the state Department of Labor and Industry's Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), which is not seasonally adjusted when referring to specific industries. When applicable, March figures were used because the month is one of the least affected by seasonal employment changes, according to analyst Jeff Newman.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org.