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Recruiter: Manufacturers desperate for workers

Talking to Julio Rivera, 17, is like going to church, because the Edison High School senior has a way of turning the ordinary into the sacred.

The ordinary: welding two pieces of metal together in his high school’s welding shop in North Philadelphia.

The sacred: “You can see the change of color in the weld. It looks like a rainbow.”

When he graduates, Rivera, who used his welding skills to make a metal rose, will make some employer happy. That’s because in the Philadelphia region and around the nation, manufacturers are desperate to hire welders. In fact, Rivera already has a job offer from PTR Baler & Compactor Co., a manufacturer of recycling equipment where Rivera has an internship.

That’ll make Charles Marcantonio’s job a little easier.

Marcantonio, director of employment and training at the nonprofit Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, recruits for manufacturers. When they send requests, Marcantonio, who owned a staffing company for 25 years, consults his Rolodex. Fees range from 10 to 25 percent of the worker’s first-year salary, paid by the company. Marcantonio said he also accepts calls and resumes from job seekers.

Marcantonio now has 40 open requests -- for welders, shipping and receiving workers, machinists, industrial painters, machine operators, and people expert in computer-controlled cutting machines (CNC) and computer-assisted design (CAD). To him, that suggests there are 300 to 400 openings in the city.

In short supply, for example, are maintenance repair people who have the smarts and adaptability to repair many types of machines, some built in the 1960s. “It’s a hard job to fill,” he said, with minimum pay in the $21- to $30-an-hour range.

When it comes to employment trends, specialty recruiters such as Marcantonio are on the front lines of what is in demand in their sectors. And for manufacturing, that may become even more important now.

“If Trump wants to bring jobs back to America, more and more manufacturing help is going to be needed,” Marcantonio said. “The business sector is thinking more positively, and the more positive the outlook, the more opportunity for growth and employment.”

In 1979, at peak manufacturing employment in the United States, 19.6 million people worked in factories. By the time the recession began in December 2007, that number had fallen to 13.7 million. Then, hiring fell off a cliff, dropping to 11.5 million by January 2010. Since then, payrolls have grown to 12.3 million jobs last month.

Besides the economy, automation and jobs moving overseas contributed to the decline, leading parents, including blue-collar workers, to push their children into college, rather than factory occupations.

During the recession, companies canned their least experienced workers. The most experienced workers, baby boomers, their savings battered by the economy, were reluctant to retire.

Now, boomers are older, their finances are better, and, Marcantonio said, “they are moving on.” But, he said, there’s no bench strength behind them.

Newcomers like Rivera are coming in, as schools add vocational programs. Edison, for example, has 14. And adults who want to embark on a career in manufacturing can get training at area community colleges and for-profit vocational schools. Some vo-tech high schools offer adult classes.

Experienced midcareer welders and machine operators are at a premium, and they are paid that way. At PTR Baler, Gary Fudala, vice president of manufacturing, said two employees in their 30s earn six figures as supervisors. Both joined PTR after high school, via PTR’s high school internship program.

Employers like PTR are so eager to fill their pipelines that, come spring, Edison welding teacher Anthony Rowe’s phone will be ringing nonstop from manufacturers willing to pay $18 to $36 an hour to hire Rowe’s 24 graduating seniors.

Last year, “I stopped answering my phone because I had no more students,” he said. “We have 100 percent placement.” Graduates who visit drive up in brand-new cars, a detail that does not go unnoticed by Rowe’s students.

Marcantonio said candidates and companies face challenges.

Candidates, he said, are not adept at crafting resumes that show their skills. “They’re not putting enough meat and potatoes on their resumes,” he said. And they may have an inflated view of what they should be earning.

On the other hand, he said, manufacturers still haven’t fully grasped the need to pay more for talent. “They’re cheap,” he said. “Manufacturers are very demanding on what they want and are unwilling to bend.”

Key is the willingness of young people like Rivera to see opportunities in manufacturing.

Rivera, who said he was 4 when his father was murdered and who once harbored dreams of being a surgeon, now sees a future in manufacturing, particularly in aviation engine repair.

“You have to have the mentality,” he said. “You know how you can look at a person’s face and tell if they are having a bad day? I can do that with a machine.”

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