At Prompt Machine Products, a Chatsworth manufacturing company, co-owner Mark Wilkinson could easily fill two jobs that each pay $100,000 salaries.
But the positions remain unfilled because of the lack of interest in a career in making aerospace components and subassemblies.
“There are not that many people getting into this field, unfortunately,” Wilkinson said.
Manufacturing is a major employer in the San Fernando Valley with machine shops populating the area from Glendale to Chatsworth mixed in with larger companies, such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, the rocket engine manufacturer that ranks No. 3 on the Busines Journal’s list of Manufacturers, and AeroVironment Inc., the drone maker based in Simi Valley that’s No. 13 on the list.
But despite the presence of all these companies, getting people to come work at them is not easy. Nor is getting young people interested in manufacturing as a career.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 509,000 open manufacturing jobs as of May. And a November report from Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. and The Manufacturing Institute projects that 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled over the next decade.
For Wilkinson it’s baffling because he feels manufacturing is a great field for young people to get into.
After all, what other profession will educate a person for free, pay a salary while they learn and come out debt free as compared to a college student, he asked.
“It is not the dirty, greasy, oily industry that people think it is,” Wilkinson added. “It is very clean and very high tech.”
David Goodreau, president of the Small Manufacturers Institute in La Cañada-Flintridge, said there are good programs that address apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships for manufacturing companies, as well as associations that can help with training programs.
“The tools are there,” Goodreau said. “What is missing is getting companies to avail themselves to it. It is a huge problem.”
The reasons why companies do not use these resources vary. But Goodreau said it comes down to taking a lot of time and energy to develop training programs and partner with schools to generate the raw talent.
“Most people are shortsighted and not looking at the fact that this problem is not going to go away; it is only going to get worse,” he added.
Many of these companies also face an older workforce that is retiring. With a lack of young people to replace them, there is no opportunity to pair the young employee with the older one in order to get some knowledge transfer.
The owners of manufacturing companies will ask themselves how they can take the older employee of a machine to work with a younger one when the older worker is needed to run parts so that the company isn’t late with an order and lose a customer, Goodreau said.
“It is a cultural thing,” he added.
About two years ago, Goodwill Southern California began working with manufacturing companies on an apprenticeship program that combines classroom training with paid, on-the-job experience.
Goodwill partnered with the U.S. Labor Department, community colleges and ToolingU, a nonprofit providing online industrial manufacturing training and development to form the California Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeship Collaborative.
According to Tracy DiFilippis, sector strategies manager with Goodwill Southern California, there are 22 companies that have signed agreements with the collaborative and 14 that currently have 34 active apprentices. Of the 14 companies, nine are located in the San Fernando or Santa Clarita valleys.
“Every single apprentice is an existing employee and it has to do with upskilling from entry level to mid-level and mid-level to high level,” DiFilippis said.
Among the companies participating in the program are Repairtech International in Van Nuys; Schrillo LLC in North Hills; Fralock in Santa Clarita; and S&H Machine in Burbank.
The program has completed 22 apprenticeships in its two years, DiFilippis said. The employees completing the program receive a certificate from the U.S. Labor Department of Labor and the state Division of Apprenticeship Standards.
Replacing the retiring manufacturing workforce is a big reason why Goodwill got involved with the apprentice program.
“This is a pain on the edge of every single employer in many different industries, but mostly manufacturing,” DiFilippis said. “They are agonizing over what they’re going to do when their top dogs retire, which they are all on the verge of.”
Wilkinson, of Prompt Machine, is not involved with the apprentice program but salultes the effort and DeFilippis.
“She has a lot of support behind her now, which is good,” Wilkinson added. “She’s good for the industry.”
One way to get around the lack of workers is to automate manufacturing operations.
But the thing about automation is that while it is good, not every company can do it, Goodreau said.
“It does not apply, especially in the San Fernando Valley, to our small-sized supply chain,” he added. “These are people who are still going to be working with human power.”
While Prompt Machine falls into the category of small manufacturer – it has only 12 employees – Wilkinson did invest $550,000 in November to purchase a Matsuura five-axis machine that can run overnight turning out parts used in commercial and military aircraft, helicopters and other defense-related equipment.
The machine allows the employees to save on set-up time as all the tooling is installed and doesn’t need to be reset every time it is used, Wilkinson said.
“We are probably saving up to 80 hours of set-up time a month by not having to reset the machine,” he added. “That is huge for us.”
What was also huge was the money to purchase the machine.
“It was very expensive, at least for us,” Wilkinson said, adding that he realized there was no other way to stay in business.
“I would love to find people and would not have gone this way if we were able to find people. But it kind of forced our hand,” he said. “In the long run it is going to work out for us, but it’s a heck of an investment.”
Most small manufacturing operations do not have the financial resources to purchase automated equipment, Goodreau said.
“The lucky companies that have the right type of work and the right financial resources, they buy a $750,000 machine and they can have one good guy do the work of four or five,” he said.
To get young people interested in manufacturing, schools figure as prime recruitment grounds.
Goodwill Southern California partners with College of the Canyons, in Santa Clarita, on the Strong Workforce Apprentice Group, and Los Angeles Valley College on its Manufacturing Academy that teaches lathe and mill operations, blueprint reading and technical mathematics.
Early this month, the apprentice group was at the most recent graduation for completing students in the academy.
“We were present in the room to inform and recruit from that academy, to advance those folks forward into those 14 companies that we serve with apprenticeships,” DeFilippis said.
Working with area schools is the approach taken by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the rocket engine manufacturer with a campus in Chatsworth.
Alisa Lee, the manager of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs with the El Segundo-based company, said that her efforts are often the first encounter students have with rocket engines.
But part of her message is that while the company may be engaged in rocket science, it doesn’t just need engineers. When promoting the company and posting on social media, the company tries to send an inclusive message.
“A lot of our manufacturing engineers and operations people love to talk about what they do,” Lee said. “It’s great to get them out when we do outreach events.”
Aerojet Rocketdyne has mentor programs at the high school and college levels. It is a sponsor of the American Rocketry Challenge and the Spaceport America Cup, a rocketry competition for college students.
At the Chatsworth location, the company sponsors a Take Your Kids to Work Day to let employees’ children see what their parents do in the workplace. It includes a display of rocket engines in the courtyard and a tour of the facility.
The company, as well, does a manufacturing day event in October that it promotes on social media.
“We talk about how cool it is,” Lee said. “We 3D printed an engine, for crying out loud, and that gets the kids interested.”
Lana Sanchez, a talent acquisition manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne for Southern California, picks up where Lee leaves off.
The company recruits at all levels, from high school graduates to professionals with years of experience. This includes appearing at career fairs and even putting ads on bus benches.
It partners with area universities, including California State University – Northridge. Its internship program helps create a strong applicant pool to choose from when considering future hires.
This summer, the company hosted 140 interns, with more than 100 of those in technical fields, primarily engineering and manufacturing, Sanchez said.
“If they are not in our engineering disciplines doing design and analysis, they are actually having their hands on the product in their work assignments,” she added.
If senior year interns make an especially strong impression, they will be offered a job prior to their graduating. These students tend to be the best ambassadors for the company when they return to campus to complete their studies, Sanchez said.
“They get real life, real world experience at our site in (the Valley) and about five or six other locations across the country,” she added.
John Brink, a talent acquisition manager for Northern California, said that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s hiring strategy is to put an emphasis on securing young people early through internships and other programs rather than looking for engineers with 10 to 15 years’ experience.
“We’re getting people in the door early and promote them as they go,” Brink said.
One study about attitudes of young people toward manufacturing revealed that getting them onto that career path may not be that difficult at all.
According to a survey from Leading2Lean, a manufacturing management software developer in Sparks, Nev., about one-third of Generation Z – those who are 18 years old to 22 years old – responded that a counselor, teacher or mentor had suggested they consider a career in manufacturing.
That compares to only 18 percent of millennials and 13 percent of the general population.
“That was telling that some of the efforts around education and a focus on educating educators to the opportunities that exist in the manufacturing segment may have helped that,” said Keith Barr, chief executive of Leading2Lean.
But the survey also indicated an understanding gap that manufacturing jobs do not pay well and don’t have the technology appeal that some tech companies have.
For instance, about 53 percent of the general population believed that a mid-level manufacturing manager made no more than $60,000 a year. Actually, the average salary for a manufacturing manager last year was $118,500, according to a survey done by trade publication, IndustryWeek.
“There is some work to do to correct that perception,” Barr said.
When it comes to technology and the digital revolution, manufacturing has been impacted as much as other industries. That transformation tackles efficiency issues with real time information and visibility while also creating the right environment for the next generation workforce to do innovation and problem solving as opposed to just performing the routine manufacturing tasks that the retiring workforce has been doing, Barr said.
The emerging sophistication in technology is an interesting draw and puts the industry in a position where manufacturing can compete with the tech industry, he added.
“The tech industry, companies like
Google and Apple and Microsoft, they have a culture and persona that can be attractive to a young person because it is all about the technology and collaboration and that is that very culture and environment that manufacturing needs to create in order to compete with them,” Barr said.