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Westchester’s Advanced Manufacturing Industry Offers Middle-Skill Jobs

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L to R: Mechanical engineers Leo Chin and Richard Wilson stand next to the latest generation of automated inspection systems for pharmaceutical products, made by Hawthorne-based company, PTI.
Photo courtesy of PTI

METCAR, a family-run business in Ossining, is on the cutting edge of a field that the county prioritizes in its economic development plans.

METCAR makes products that keep industries humming behind the scenes: oil-free, self-lubricating materials used in industry for processes where oil can’t be used because of very hot or cold temperatures involved. Its solutions, made from carbon graphite, are used in bakery ovens, airplanes, oil refineries, water pumps, and fuel pumps.

The 75-year-old company’s success in this space has helped it grow to 175 employees — about 100 in Ossining, 10 in Sullivan County, and the rest at its facilities in Mexico and Singapore and its sales office in China.

President and CEO Matthew Brennan says the county’s convenient location makes transportation and logistics easy. “From here, we can pretty much get a product anywhere in the world in 24 hours,” he says.

However, on top of rising costs for copper, tin, and silver, METCAR has to contend with local challenges that include high taxes, the high cost of labor and energy, and a tough regulatory climate. “Westchester is a difficult place to do business if you’re a manufacturer. The cost of living in Westchester is among the highest in the U.S.,” says Brennan.

To help create a more supportive environment for local manufacturers, Brennan joined a new advanced manufacturing task force the county has set up to support advanced manufacturing in the county. The task force, Brennan says, is “the first attempt to listen to the manufacturing segment of the economy.”

Building Talent for Middle-Skills Jobs

One key focus will be on developing a pipeline of talent to fill better-paying middle-skills jobs, as well as professional-level jobs in advanced manufacturing, that pay the kind of salaries needed to live in the county.

At the advanced manufacturing task force kick-off meeting, held earlier this year, three out of four businesses involved said they needed more machinists, according to Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for the county.

Manufacturers also mentioned a need for programmers. “One of our top priorities is to get them talent so they can grow,” she says.

Advanced manufacturing is one of four sectors prioritized in the Westchester County Economic Development Strategy, Recovery and Implementation Plan, released by Westchester County Executive George Latimer last summer, the others being biosciences, financial technology, and clean energy. Each will have its own task force and “desk,” which employers can call if they want to relocate to the county or connect with other employers in the sector.

One result of the pandemic has been renewed appreciation of the importance of U.S-based manufacturing, according to Harold King, president of the Council of Industry, an association based in Newburgh. “I think we recognized the importance of manufacturing and that these jobs are critical to our national security,” King says. “If you’re making PPE or pharmaceuticals, they are vital.”

“If you are a high school student and want to get into a career, you want some credentials. If a company offers an apprenticeship position, it really helps them to get the right caliber person who is going to commit to them and commit to a career.”
—Harold King, President, Council of Industry

Westchester Manufacturers Do ‘Fascinating Things’

There’s no official definition for advanced manufacturing, but generally, says King, this type of manufacturing is more dependent on sophisticated and skills-intensive processes than typical manufacturing.

In Westchester, the companies in this sector mostly make highly engineered products, according to King. The roster includes big corporations such as IBM and BASF as well as smaller companies such as PTI, a maker of package inspection equipment; Micromold Products, which manufactures plastic fluid-handling products; Bantam Tools, which produces desktop machines used to make printed circuit boards and aluminum parts; and Safe Flight Instrument, which manufactures aircraft instrumentation, flight performance, and control systems.

“There is a plethora of little companies doing fascinating things with almost esoteric products,” says King. Some of the smaller companies benefit from outsourcing by bigger manufacturers. “They help solve critical engineering problems,” he says.

To support advanced manufacturers, local workforce development officials are focused on attracting and training talent for middle-skilled trade jobs such as machinist, maintenance mechanic, and welder. These are jobs that pay wages in the range of $15–$18 an hour up to $60 an hour. They also want to develop more engineers and programmers, who can earn a six-figure income, says King.

Helping New Workers Enter the Field

Training workers for the middle-skills jobs will likely require developing more internships and apprenticeships. “They require on-the-job training,” says King. “As an association, we’re trying to formalize this as a recruiting tool. If you are a high school student and want to get into a career, you want some credentials. If a company offers an apprenticeship position, it really helps them to get the right caliber person who is going to commit to them and commit to a career.”

One area where there are a growing number of apprenticeships is industrial maintenance technology—a middle-skills field where workers are in demand, says Dan Cullen, director of field services at the Workforce Development Institute in Albany. Some employers are, alternatively, helping workers develop “stackable” credentials by paying all or some of the costs for certifications that allow someone to learn a skill that’s needed on the job, such as welding, while working toward more advanced skills.

“Some of our aerospace and medical manufacturers make things in sizes smaller than you see with the naked eye,” says Cullen. “If you are designing them, you have to be highly trained. Most people don’t just walk in the door with that.”

But it’s not just training that’s necessary to spur growth in advanced manufacturing, says King. Shoring up childcare programs will also be important — a factor that became very clear during the pandemic. “Remote work is only reasonable for about 40% of people who work in manufacturing,” says King. “Childcare issues became huge.”

Although the human resources managers of the Council of Industry’s member firms were “super-human” in helping keep plants staffed, keeping shifts filled remains a problem at many local plants. “Finding people continues to be a huge challenge,” King says. Many plants already find it challenging to find backups when team members must use family leave policies, he finds.

Companies that want to stay productive may need to help provide childcare solutions, he says. “Sometimes it’s a matter of finding a licensed provider and leasing space to them,” says King. That could become complicated in a plant with multiple shifts, he adds. “If you’re starting a shift at 4 pm, that becomes a whole different dynamic.”

Ultimately, allowing advanced manufacturers to continue to innovate may require something that has nothing to do with internships, apprenticeships, or on-the-job training. “We’ve got to make it easier for families to be families and raise kids,” says King.