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Manufacturing bounced back in York County's economic recovery

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

After a devastating, pandemic-induced economic crash that saw Pennsylvania's unemployment rate skyrocket from 6% in March to 16% in April, one economic sector in the central region has bounced back and is practically booming.

Manufacturing has seen steady growth since state-mandated restrictions on movement and commerce were lifted in June.

In its December Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey — which covers central and eastern Pennsylvania, including York County — the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recorded month-over-month gains in manufacturing general activity, new orders, shipments and employment from June through December. 

"A number of manufacturers have been extremely busy,” said Tom Palisin, executive director of The Manufacturers’ Association — the regional industry trade group that recently moved to a bigger building in Manchester Township to accommodate growth.

Executive Director Tom Palisin is shown at The Manufacturers' Association headquarters in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The organization partners with 365 manufacturing business members and there are currently about 100 students enrolled in the four year apprencticeship program. Dawn J. Sagert photo

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“Those involved in consumer products or food production have been hiring quite a bit — expanding their activities,” he added. “Consumer goods have really been in high growth mode as well, as people stockpile some of these things." 

This is a far cry from when Gov. Tom Wolf issued lockdown orders in March. 

Manufacturing activities took a deep dive then and dipped to a 40-year low in April, below its nadir during the Great Recession, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Nationally, manufacturing activity rose to 60.7 in December, the highest reading since it stood at 60.8 in August 2018, according to The Associated Press. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector.

Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance, attributed growth in York County to its history of a strong manufacturing base. He said 18% of the local labor force is in manufacturing, which is nearly twice the state and national average. 

A full-page add placed in the Jan. 8, 1951 issue of The York Dispatch is displayed at The Manufacturers' Association in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Both Schreiber and Palisin attributed manufacturing’s strong comeback and stability to it being an essential business, compared with the now-sunken service sector, for example.

"That's why I think manufacturing has faired a lot better than most industries, because it is essential,” Palisin said. “Manufacturing makes things. People need cars. They need food. They need all these things. So it's critical to our county and the region. It's the No. 1 employer in York County. It's the No. 1 economic sector in the county. It drives what happens here." 

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The Manufacturers’ Association conducts an annual survey for salary and human resources practices of local manufacturers. Responses in its most recent report, which was released late last fall, indicated employers are having trouble filling positions.

Responses show 79% had difficulty in hiring, with 60% saying they have difficulty finding and hiring skilled technical workers and 51% reporting difficulty with entry-level workers.

More than half of manufacturers said the length of time to hire was increasing between the job being posted to hiring, Palisin said, adding "our companies are really struggling even to hire a few entry-level people" or get them to show up to interviews.

Steven Dombroski, of Dover Township, uses a milling machine as he shapes a component for a tool maker's vice he builds during practical machine shop training at The Manufacturers' Association in Manchester Township, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Dombroski is employed by Tooling Dynamics in York City. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Marissa Throckmorton, human resources manager at Pennex Aluminum Co. in York City and Wellsville, said this is absolutely the case, and it has been an added challenge to existing struggles in recruitment for the company.

"It's definitely increased over just the past year with COVID. Everybody's hiring right now, so we're competing against other companies who are hiring maybe for a higher rate," she said. "Everyone's in the pandemic right now, so it's just been really challenging over the past year."

Firms reported they will need more than 380 new employees, and 40% of manufacturers are hiring, according to the association’s survey.

"That's the $60,000 question, why that's happening,” Palisin said of the difficulty. “From my perspective, it's a couple things. I think, obviously, with the pandemic, there's certainly some resistance or concerns about working with other people and potentially contracting the disease.” 

The Manufacturers' Association in Manchester Township, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Employers also were concerned about unemployment benefits, Palisin said, which “were pretty robust, so that was a bit of a disincentive for people to be actively looking or taking jobs." 

Throckmorton said the company has introduced some new recruitment and marketing strategies such as on social media to try and reach new audiences as the pandemic rages on with no end in sight.

"I think everyone is faced with this challenge right now, and we're trying to navigate it the best that we can. We're doing pretty well. I can't really complain. We've come a long way in the past year," she said.  

Instructor Mike Kemble, left, works with student James Smith, of West Manchester Township, as they examine a horizontal bandsaw during practical machine shop training at The Manufacturers' Association in Manchester Township, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Smith is employed by Tooling Dynamics in York City. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Schreiber reported that unemployment data from the Department of Labor and Industry this month shows York County’s rate at 5.4%, compared with just over 3% in March 2020.

He said this means York County is approaching pre-COVID unemployment rates, though there’s still significant uncertainty.

“There's a looming cloud of COVID and its impact, with some questions outstanding as to when we will be able to slow walk back into a pre-COVID normalcy," Schreiber said.