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Metalworkers in short supply as manufacturers’ orders start to rebound

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Jeff Lehn works using a Bridgeport milling machine at Jatco Machine & Tool Co. Inc., in Bellevue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
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Mike Vucish and Lori Vucish-Albright, co-owners of Stellar Precision Components in Jeannette. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Ed Sikora is the owner of Jatco Machine & Tool Co. Inc., in Bellevue, Thursday. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
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Sam Reitz of North Huntingdon, a manual machinist at Stellar Precision Components Inc. in Jeannette, cuts 'o ring grooves' into a pressure test fixture. The company makes a variety of metal products for the aerospace and defense industries. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
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Workers use a Bridgeport milling machine as they manufacture a metal mold at Jatco Machine & Tool Co. Inc., in Bellevue. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

Stellar Precision Components Inc. turns down work almost daily because it can’t find enough machinists to employ.

“I could hire 10 people instantly,” said Lori Albright, who owns the Jeannette company with her brother, Mike Vucish.

Stellar Precision, with 65 workers, makes finely measured metal pieces for airplanes, nuclear plants and Defense products.

“Right now, the aerospace industry is going crazy — a customer will say they need something turned in four to six weeks, but we don’t have the staff to support it,” Albright said.

Western Pennsylvania companies that rely on metalworkers find them in short supply, as orders rebound after the recession. Many trade schools cut back or eliminated classes in machining and other skills when manufacturing declined in recent decades and students’ interest waned.

Compressor and steam turbine maker Elliott Group visited the Detroit area to find job candidates a few years ago, when automakers laid off experienced industrial workers. The Jeannette-based company pays employees $800 for referring someone it then hires.

“We do a lot of things to try to generate as many candidates as we can,” said Brian Lapp, vice president of human resources.

Elliott hired about 150 people during the past three years, most of them machinists, welders, millwrights and other skilled-trades workers, he said. The 102-year-old company employs 1,100 people at its headquarters and sites in Donora and Belle Vernon.

Westmoreland County Community College works with Elliott to train new hires. Still, finding workers is “very difficult,” Lapp said, and the company has 26 openings.

Manufacturers nationwide are having trouble finding workers for production floor slots, even as unemployment rose slightly to 8.3 percent in July.

“The sad thing is, there are schools that offer the training and nobody enrolls” in metalworking and other industrial courses, said Laura Fisher, senior vice president of special projects for Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The conference and other organizations studied the local manufacturing and supply chain, related to the growing energy industry, and identified 14 high-demand, hard-to-fill occupations.

They include industrial and maintenance technicians and welders. “What we collectively need to do is create more awareness. These are long-term, high-paying stable careers,” she said.

These are different from metalworking careers of the past. Machinists need geometry, algebra and other math and blueprint reading skills, as well as manual abilities to mill and grind pieces exactly, to thousandths of an inch, employers say. They use computer-controlled cutting tools.

Kennametal Inc. in Unity Township has more than 150 jobs available in the United States — more than one-third of them production jobs — including skilled machinists, said spokeswoman Christina Sutter.

“On average, it takes us several months or more to fill jobs, the more technical the longer it takes beyond that,” she said.

The work force is aging and retiring, said Ed Sikora, owner of Jatco Machine & Tool Co. in Bellevue. Because people think jobs are scarce in metals industries and believe students need four-year college degrees to succeed, “People just aren’t aware of these opportunities,” he said.

Jatco, which makes injection molds for plastics, employs 18 people, including one retired worker in Florida who returns every summer.

Jim Boyle of Boyle Inc., a tool and die maker in Freeport, counts two retirees who work part-time among his 17 workers.

Boyle’s company has three openings. He has noticed that businesses are turning to domestic sources of precision-made metal products they once bought from Mexico, India and other countries.

“The bottom line is delivery. They can’t get the product made fast enough and manufacturing has picked up,” he said.

Jeff Lehn, a 30-year machinist, said he found several options in his job search before he started working for Jatco five months ago. “A lot of jobs out there,” he said, but some don’t pay well.

“There are a lot of young people who don’t get into this trade because the schools don’t teach it anymore,” he said, although the Beaver County vocational school he attended has a program.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 7 percent growth through 2020 in jobs for machinists and tool and die makers. Median pay in 2010 was $39,910.

In Pennsylvania, machinists made an average hourly wage of $19.10 last year, the state Department of Labor and Industry said.

The scarcity of skilled metalworkers is particularly acute in the Pittsburgh region — in part because its manufacturers serve aerospace, defense, plastics, medical device and many other industries and aren’t hurt as much if one area slumps, said Paul Anselmo, president of New Century Careers.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or [email protected].

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