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Needed: Workers With Technical Skills in Westchester

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Photo courtesy of Bantam Tools

With advanced manufacturing powering a wave of innovation, Westchester businesses need employees who can lead this growth.

Technology has changed just about every industry, and manufacturing is definitely one of them. There is even a term for the industries in this sector that have been transformed by automation, computation, sensing, and other tech processes: advanced manufacturing.

Westchester County is a leading center of this new wave of innovation. The county’s Economic Development Office, which runs an Advanced Manufacturing Industry Desk, reports that Westchester “is home to a diverse advanced manufacturing industry that produces everything from package inspection equipment and plastic fluid handling products to circuit boards and aluminum parts.” The industry is well served here by 28 higher education institutions and public schools, which teach and train the highly skilled workers needed for this growing sector; by numerous commercial real estate opportunities for digitized, specialized and cleaner manufacturing processes; and, of course, by its proximity to New York City, the Port of New York and New Jersey, and the many local airports and freight rail depots.

The inside joke, says Harold King, is that if you are manufacturing anything in the Hudson Valley, you are now advanced. “Particularly in Westchester,” adds King, who is president of the Council of Industry, an association of manufacturers. “The short answer is, every manufacturer is using some technology to make their product.”

With this rapid growth come challenges, most noticeably in workforce development. This has been an ongoing issue for at least 10 years, he says, and the pandemic and “Great Resignation” have only accelerated the problem. Much of that is blamed on the shift of the country’s focus from manufacturing to a service economy. “People were not going into trades in the 1990s and 2000s as we de-emphasized technical education,” King says. “Now that has changed. There are great programs, but they are not keeping up with retirement and growth in industry.” As a result, there is a wide age gap among workers: “There are lots of 60-year-olds and 20-year-olds, and not a lot in between,” he notes.

Peekskill-based Bantam Tools makes computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools in desktop sizes. Bantam Tools’ Peter Riley with a chess knight milled on the company’s Desktop CNC Milling Machine. Courtesy of Bantam Tools

LOCAL EMPLOYERS NEED SKILLED CANDIDATES

One company in the sector, Magnetic Analysis Corporation in Elmsford, is finding it “very hard” to find qualified workers, says Dudley M. Boden, president and CEO. Magnetic Analysis designs and produces equipment used for high-speed testing of primary metal products such as bar, wire, and pipe during manufacture. These precision electromechanical products use sophisticated software, complex custom computer boards, and mechanical test probes that rotate at up to 18,000 rpm, “while withstanding the hot, dirty environments of steel plants and similar workplaces,” he explains.

His company needs skilled, embedded programmers; these workers are “totally different from a database, web or app programmer, which is the more common skill set in this area. We also need highly skilled mechanical assemblers and machinists, who are in very limited supply in this geography.” As a midsized company competing with large organizations in the New York area for talent, he says he cannot offer the salaries or benefits of many of these organizations.

Related: Where to Find the Job Candidates You Need in Westchester

Peekskill-based Bantam Tools has numerous open positions as well. Bantam makes computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools — essentially, microcomputers are attached to tools used in machining metal and plastic parts. CNC tools include mills, lathes, routers, and grinders, which Bantam manufactures in desktop sizes. “In general, jobs that require technical skills are the hardest to fill,” says General Manager Ron Lorentzen. These skills include programming, blueprint reading, CNC machining, metrology (measurement), and robotics. “A key to go along with these skills is the development of logical problem-solving skills, to make good decisions while performing their day-to-day tasks,” he says. “It is also imperative that candidates exhibit good interpersonal and team skills. Although the need for technical skills is high, having the necessary soft skills is also important. It can be very counterproductive to have the perfect skilled person who upsets the culture and balance of the team.”

Precision assembly of the Desktop CNC Milling Machine. Courtesy of Bantam Tools

GOOD OPPORTUNITIES FOR PAY, CAREER ADVANCEMENT

The right candidate can expect to make a very nice salary. “Once you get to a certain level of expertise, a good industrial maintenance mechanic is worth as much as any engineer,” King says. There’s good reason for that. “If the machines are not working and the lines are not working, that’s costing you tens of thousands of dollars an hour,” King says. Boden confirms that: a top CNC machinist can make $60,000 to $80,000 a year, and software programmers can make six figures, he reports. Field engineers can make high five figures. Benefits packages are generous, he adds, and being small allows his company flexibility in accommodating personal needs. “Also, because we make very specialized equipment, everyone has a lot of variety in their jobs, whether they are an assembler, who almost never builds the same product twice in a year, or a salesperson who is constantly dealing with different types of businesses and different technologies,” he says.

Lorentzen says his employees can start with hourly wages in the low to mid-twenties, depending on experience, “with jobs that provide great benefits to boot. More importantly, these skills offer excellent career growth potential within the organization, great job security and skills that are transferrable and widely in demand in the manufacturing industry.”

“We normally hire skilled people, but where there are training needs, it is mostly accomplished through working alongside skilled employees.”
—Dudley M. Boden President and CEO Magnetic Analysis Corporation

These are “great jobs for people without college degrees where the work is interesting as well as lucrative,” Boden says. Machinists and assemblers often get started in community college, but need some apprenticeship before being fully qualified. Software programmers do need at least a four-year degree in software development or electrical engineering, and field engineers are usually degreed electrical engineers. “We normally hire skilled people, but where there are training needs, it is mostly accomplished through working alongside skilled employees,” he says.

In order to get training for these skills, Lorentzen recommends community colleges and workforce training initiatives. SUNY Westchester Community College and Westchester’s Advanced Manufacturing task force are focusing on developing workforce training initiatives and skill-building apprenticeship programs. Bantam Tools is “taking the initiative, working with Westchester Community College and the Council of Industry to build the skillsets we need,” Lorentzen says, currently for CNC machinists. The company also offers “a variety of interesting, getting-started projects and we are developing skill-building, educational programs to go along with the Bantam Tools desktop CNC machine,” he says.

The future of advanced manufacturing looks bright. The National Science Foundation (NSF) currently invests $250 million each year in advanced manufacturing research in areas such as computer-aided design, 3D printing, and nanomaterials. The goal, it says, “is to drive the creation of entirely new methods and means of manufacturing that do not exist today …. The formation of new manufacturing processes and industries will also create new jobs and opportunities that will bolster economic growth and benefit society at large.”

Those new jobs will need to be filled — many of them here in Westchester County.

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