The manufacturing industry expects positive growth this year, and in a break from past years, one company leader said there will be no problem with finding the workforce to fully capitalize on revenue opportunities.

JWF Industries President Bill Polacek, said he expects to add about 50 new skilled labor, supply chain and office workers this year to his current crop of 330 employees in Johnstown.

“I expect growth because of our defense, chemical and commercial businesses increasing,” Polacek said.

But five years ago, he would have been worried about filling new skilled labor positions, he said.

“I think we are fortunate to have so many great vocational schools in our area as well as Pitt and St. Francis universities. And I think what’s happened between Penn Highlands Community College and the vocational technical schools in the area is that they’ve really increased the amount of students in skilled labor by educating students on job growth and the pay, Polacek said.

“We have a good pipeline now, and we have an apprenticeship in-house.”

The company is fortifying for the long term this year with some business contracts of up to 10 years, Polacek said.

But in Somerset County, one company said there isn’t necessarily the workforce to fully bring growth to fruition.

J&J Truck Bodies and Trailers in Somerset has seen positive growth since 2017, but it could be better, Michael Riggs, senior vice president, said.

“There’s been strong economic conditions,” he said. “Trucks are needed as infrastructure is built and the natural gas industry extracts gas.”

Construction and natural gas industries have been strong, he said, though the natural gas industry has “slowed up on us” as gas supply has met demand.

According to the Keystone Contractors Association, a survey of construction companies statewide predicts a good year for construction. Low interest rates are key for sustaining recent economic growth, and as long as the Federal Reserve maintains low rates, companies anticipate 2020 and 2021 will bode well for construction, according to the association.

A majority – 64% – of companies expect to increase the number of workers in the field and 35% expect to expand professional office staff.

Although Riggs’ company has benefited from growth in the construction and natural gas industries, he said he thinks about the revenue he could have produced if only he had the workforce.

“Our problem is skilled labor,” he said.

Riggs employs 150 skilled workers including welders, machinists and mechanics, but over the past three years, he’s had enough work to hire 30 more welders. He just couldn’t find them.

He attributes part of the problem to the mass retirement of baby boomers starting in 2011, and their great numbers being replaced by generations that are not as populous. In addition, he said he believes the culture and school system have oriented younger generations to office jobs requiring college education.

“Skilled trades have lost their sexiness to other occupations,” he said.

“It’s a challenge getting younger people to look at the trades as a career option because they are tech-focused, face-in-a screen. They want a job where you are in an office, working on a computer and not in construction sites. It’s hard work.”

A lot of companies are starting welders at $14 to $16 per hour, which is considered family sustaining, said Johnstown Area Regional Industries Workforce Development Director Debi Balog.

“With more experience, welders can write their ticket and move up and move quickly and long term,” she said. If you get in with unions, or go through an extensive apprenticeship program, the wage can be $22 to $28 per hour. Locally, we have companies paying over $20 per hour.”

Balog said the skills gap created by retirement of baby boomers is expected to continue, and it affects the health care industry as well as transportation and manufacturing.

“We know we have an aging population and some other issues that create a shortage of workers here,” Balog said. “It’s going to continue to happen because the baby boomers now have already met or are meeting retirement age. And the economy is good, leaving a gap of openings for local companies.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.


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