Eugene Scalia

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia speaks about workforce development at JWF Industries, 84 Iron St., Johnstown, on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the nation’s economy to a near halt earlier this year.

But throughout the summer, orders from companies such as Mack Defense kept JWF growing regardless, boosting its workforce back up to 350 in Johnstown, JWF Chief Operating Officer John Polacek said inside the company’s sprawling Iron Street space on Tuesday.

Nearby, “Help Wanted” ads flashed on digital displays to fill as many as 25 more jobs, welders, machinists and quality inspectors, among them.

“When we were dealing with (defense) sequestration five years ago, times were tough,” Polacek said, referring to cuts made due to a deadlock between then-President Barack Obama and a then John Boehner-led GOP House majority.

“Under (President Donald) Trump, things have changed. 

“We’ve seen our defense work continue to grow – it’s 75% of our business now and we’re continuing to grow it.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia joined JWF officials and staff Tuesday to celebrate the company as a success story within an otherwise challenging 2020.

“It’s exciting for me to be here and see workers thriving personally and doing all they do ... to support our nation’s military,” Scalia said. “What some people don’t appreciate is how critical American manufacturing is to national security. Here at JWF, we see it.”

He credited the company’s ability to grow its workforce through its in-house apprenticeship program.

Scalia, who has served as Trump’s labor secretary since July 2019, met with more than 40 JWF workers Tuesday to discuss how their administration has worked to bolster American manufacturing.

He was joined by U.S. Rep John Joyce, R-Blair, and U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson, R-Centre, who introduced Scalia.

JWF Industries has employed more than 400 people at times within a multi-company operation that also includes Environmental Tank and Container. 

But Polacek said the company’s defense arm is leading its current growth, driven by contracts for the U.S. Army and other military branches.

That includes assembling frames for vehicles such as the Army’s M1288 Ground Mobility Vehicle and components that support mobile radar systems, he said.

JWF President Bill Polacek said his company is better off today because the company had to adapt and learn from the pandemic – but employees were a key part of that.

“We’re smarter. We’ve improved our factory. We improved our quality,” Polacek said. 

“(JWF employees) leaned forward during COVID-19. And I’m proud of how these folks responded.”

Phillip Kniss started working for JWF around the time Trump was elected.

The Johnstown man said it “feels great” to know his work ends up supporting the men and women of the U.S. military at home and overseas – but he also wanted to know what Scalia projected for his industry in the future.

Scalia said his administration estimates 75,000 jobs will be created in the auto manufacturing industry across America over the next five years, thanks to the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal Trump signed in July.

John Polacek said JWF is already seeing the benefits of that deal, adding that it levels the playing field against a Mexican industry that often beat U.S. competitors by producing inferior products at a fraction of the price.

Thompson described JWF as a manufacturing “powerhouse.”

He indicated he was glad Scalia got to see that first-hand for himself, noting it serves as an example of what workforce development initiatives can mean for communities and the nation as a whole.

“I’m grateful for the role that JWF Industries plays in creating job opportunities in our region,” he said.

Manufacturing up, health, ed jobs down

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, a division of Scalia’s department, manufacturing jobs rose to 4,400 jobs during the year prior to the pandemic in Cambria County.

The total was at 4,200 in February, just prior to the shutdown – up by approximately 200 manufacturing jobs from President Barack Obama’s final months in office.

That latest figures, from August, indicated that sector was back up to 4,100 after falling to 3,900 earlier in the year.

Mining and construction jobs also grew during Trump’s term to a peak of 2,900 the year before the pandemic, compared to 2,200 jobs during Obama’s final year.

With many of the region’s metallurgical coal mining and construction jobs economy-driven, those jobs were down to 1,900 in August, the Bureau’s statistics show.

Other job fields in greater Johnstown have seen sharp job losses during Trump’s years in office.

Education and health services jobs dropped from 15,700 in 2016 to 14,500 in the months before COVID-19 hit. As of August, totals were at 13,100 – down 1,600 jobs from the same point four years ago.

And professional services jobs – architects, engineers and accountants, among them – have continued to slide, from 5,100 jobs during Obama’s four years ago to 4,700 late last year.

Speaking broadly about the economy in general, Scalia said COVID-19 halted “historic” growth across the nation early this year – and said the country is exceeding expectations on how quickly it is rebounding from it, thanks to deregulation and the Mexico-Canada trade deal, which will continue to pay dividends in the years ahead.

‘Work’ unfinished on COVID-19

Scalia has been making routines stops across Pennsylvania for Trump at a time the state has been described as a critical swing state in the upcoming election.

He’s also a member of the White House’s 26-member Coronavirus Task Force, which also includes Vice President Mike Pence, Response Coordinator Deborah Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci.

And his visit also comes as Pennsylvania, which had been able to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through much of the summer, has started seeing cases and hospital admissions spike through much of the state.

When asked about the shift, Scalia said it’s a reminder that there’s work left to be done.

“We know the virus is still with us. We have a much better understanding now then we did in March or April about how its transmitted, about the steps we have to take to prevent it ... and we’re miles ahead of where we were in treating people who do become sick,” he said, noting that social distancing, hygiene and “many times,” masks are important.

Scalia was one of more than 100 people who attended the Rose Garden event in late September blamed for a COVID-19 spread that infected Trump,several senators and members of Trump's staff.  Scalia, who did not wear a mask during the White House ceremony, tested negative afterward for the virus in the weeks that followed.

In Johnstown on Tuesday, he did wear a mask at times, including for photos when he was standing alongside JWF workers.

Polacek presented Scalia with a patriotic blue JWF face covering during the event as well as a commemorative JWF coin.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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