COVID may be slowing, but manufacturing and industry are still struggling to find workers and clean up our supply chains

As the travel industry recovers from the near total shutdown caused by COVID-19 two years ago, Kevin McEvoy has received calls to examine more aircraft engine parts.

“People are flying again, so they need more parts,” said McEvoy, general manager of Innovative Test Solutions, a Schenectady-based company that tests a variety of materials such as aircraft engine components for ensure their reliability and durability.

Activity in the aeronautical industry is on the rise. But McEvoy is still experiencing supply chain delays, especially when it comes to receiving parts for testing.

Likewise with Matt Rowe, vice president of operations at Latham Pools.

Demand for swimming pools has increased with the pandemic as people have opted for staycations. Demand remains strong and the company is currently working on pool orders to be completed next year. Getting and keeping enough employees is a constant challenge, Rowe said, even with wages starting at $20 an hour with benefits and $1,000 signing and referral bonuses.

The same goes for other local manufacturers.

“I could hire 15 to 20 people right now,” added Glenn Tabolt, CEO of STS Steel at Schenectady.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has been disruptive to the entire economy.

For the Capital Region’s manufacturing sector, this has amplified many of the challenges businesses previously faced.

And now, amid continued competition for employees, supply chain issues, and inflation, it’s increasingly urgent for manufacturers to rethink some of their business practices.

Latham Pools, for example, seeks to source components from places like Indiana rather than China.

Innovative Test Solutions looked to the second-hand market for strain gauges, which measure applied force, because new ones weren’t available.

Many of the adjustments are prosaic and technical, but they are important, given the often underestimated role of manufacturing in the Capital Region economy.

Manufacturing, a broad category of business that ranges from making computer chips and making steel to building aviation parts and power turbines, as well as glues, paints and a number of he items we all take for granted have long been a staple of the region. economy.

Manufacturers aren’t the biggest employers in the Capital Region, but they pay dearly and the multiplier effect helps keep the region afloat financially.

According to the state Department of Labor, manufacturers in the Greater Capital Region employ about 33,000 people.

This is not as much as those in accommodation/food services, health care/social services or retail trade, with 37,000, 38,000 and 55,000 respectively.

But the average manufacturing salary of around $92,000 is well above the $27,000 in accommodation and food, $56,000 in health care/social services or $38,000 in retail.

Capital Region manufacturers tend to be “tier 2 or 3” or relatively small companies with fewer than 100 employees, said Michael Lobsinger, senior vice president of the Albany Center for Economic Growth.

But these are crucial industries – making parts that go on planes or buses, sensors used for assembly lines, rebar for buildings and gaskets, sealing and pipes that go into a number of industrial processes.

“Our makers are behind the scenes, so you don’t see them,” Lobsinger said. “We have a lot.”

The importance of manufacturing was not new to the group of makers, as well as development experts and academic advisors, who gathered last week for a discussion hosted by Innovative Test Solutions at Rivers Casino and Resort’s Landing. Hotel.

“These issues and challenges have only gotten worse over the past two years. Our workforce challenges predated the pandemic,” noted Win Thurlow, executive director of MedTech, an association of companies that manufacture medical devices and other products used in healthcare.

Many of those present spoke of long-standing struggles in recruiting employees. And they renewed their calls for local K-12 schools and colleges to help convince students that there are viable, well-paying careers in manufacturing.

These calls were familiar: the need for more apprenticeships or internships, both in high school and college, and more BOCES-style training for skilled blue-collar jobs.

While there are exceptions, most in attendance agreed that convincing a bureaucratic education system to adapt to the needs of the 21st century economy will be an ongoing battle.

“We’re not following industry’s lead,” said Roger Woolsey, executive director of Union College’s Becker Career Center. “Higher education needs to adapt,” he said, adding that his school had created an entrepreneurship program to get students thinking about postgraduate business opportunities.

The pandemic has only worsened the shortage of employees.

“It was a major event, it just didn’t change some of the fundamental issues. In some cases, it made the situation worse,” said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the State Business Council.

On the one hand, workers in the manufacturing sector tend to be older. Many are at retirement age and others may have slipped back during the pandemic, even though manufacturing was considered an essential service not subject to government-mandated shutdowns.

In addition, inflation increases competition for employees at all skill and education levels.

Fast food restaurants and retailers are increasing their starting salaries, making it all the more difficult for factories to compete for starters.

And inflation is unlikely to come down anytime soon, said Amber Rangel Moody, director of workforce development for the Business Council, whose members include many manufacturers.

Supply chain delays will also likely be present for some time, despite moves to bring more manufacturing back to the United States.

Reopening or starting a factory, perhaps in an abandoned building, or starting over, is a long process that doesn’t happen overnight, Pokalsky noted.

Some manufacturers may need to look carefully in the mirror when it comes to compensation and employment terms, said Miriam Dushane, managing partner at Alaant Workforce Solutions, an Albany employee search firm.

If manufacturers are losing employees to retail or fast food, they may have to raise their wages, Dushane said.

And while working from home isn’t much of an option in manufacturing, some may want to offer flexibility in hours or shift configurations such as four-day work weeks. This flexibility is especially important for attracting younger workers, Dushane said.

“There is a power struggle there,” between employers and employees over issues such as wages and working conditions, she said.

Additionally, young workers often want to know they’re working for a company that is environmentally friendly and values ​​diversity and inclusion, said Rochelle Caruso, associate director at Union College’s Becker Center.

There are a few ideas, including getting students interested in careers in manufacturing.

One way is to create team events where students compete to do things like design the best bridge or the best machine, said Philip Bruce, director of career and professional development at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“Make it kind of a puzzle,” he said.

And dealing with supply chain bugs requires agility. When Latham Pools, which has factories across North America, couldn’t find export shipping containers on the west coast, they had to look on the east coast, even though it was farther away. of some customers.

“It’s an everyday challenge,” Rowe said.

[email protected] • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

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