Tool and die shops strive to develop younger workforce

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MEADVILLE, Pennsylvania — Though he passed retirement age more than a decade ago, Bob McEntire doesn't know when he'll stop working — and his boss is glad for it.

"He's the resident old guy," Bill Starn, chief executive officer of Starn Tool & Manufacturing Inc. of Meadville, said of McEntire, 77, a tool and die maker who has been with the firm for more than 27 years. "When it comes to work, he does anything we ask."

McEntire is believed to be the oldest active tool and die maker in the region — and at age 74, another employee, Ken Ervin, a fellow tool and die maker who works at Mecal by Starn, a sister company, isn't far behind.

"I love to work," McEntire said. "I love to build things. I feel missing something if I'm not in here."

McEntire runs an electrical discharge machine that cuts metal parts via an electrical current. He designs and makes the graphite electrodes he needs to cut out a part.

"I do a lot of planning, design and setup," McEntire said. "I just enjoy figuring things out."

The same can be said for Ervin in his work making machinery and parts that fashion electrical harnesses used in everything from vehicles to consumer products.

"I enjoy doing things — it's interesting work trying to figure out how to make something," Ervin said.

"Once you're in it, you can't just walk away from it," Ervin said of his continued work in the tooling and machining industry.

While McEntire and Ervin each have a wealth of experience in the tooling trade — about five decades apiece when counting their previous employers — their ages also highlight the need by the area's tooling and machining shops to develop a younger workforce.

Starn has about 70 employees — ranging in age from 19 to 77.

"Their experience is invaluable," Starn said of his older employees — noting some others are in their 50s and 60s.

The business is built upon the skill level of its employees with older ones helping train those younger, Starn said.

"Mentors are needed so they can see what's right," Starn said, noting it takes about 10 years at a minimum for a toolmaker to be experienced.

"You have to grow and have to have a constant pyramid of workers," Starn said. "If we don't fill the base with new workers to expand the pyramid, we're not going to survive."

Starn said firms can find people — if they're willing to invest in time and effort.

"You can find people who have the right attitude, interest and knowledge," Starn said. "But, you have to put effort into it."

The local tooling industry has done a number of outreach approaches in the past few years in an effort to find new workers. The area's tooling and machining industry estimates it needs about 250 new skilled workers a year for the next decade to replace current workers who will retire; possible business expansion; and the integration of new technology into area firms.

Manufacturing is important to Crawford County since there is a heavier reliance on it here than in other parts of Pennsylvania and the country. About 22 percent of the jobs in the county are related to manufacturing, compared to 10 percent for the state and 11 percent nationally. Many of the area's tooling and machining shops are suppliers of tools, equipment and parts to major manufacturers.

One successful mechanism the local tooling industry has used for the past eight years to attract young people has been RoboBOTS — a local competitive robot building competition for school students. Teams of students from high schools and middle schools in Crawford County and its surrounding area design and build 15-pound robots that do battle against each other.

The Northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, a tooling industry trade group, started the RoboBOTS robot building program in 2006 as a creative way to attempt to attract students toward technical careers. It came about after the chapter's then-president, Scott Hanaway, had seen it used in another area of the country and suggested it be tried by the local chapter.

"We're feeding the pipeline for workers," Ken Kuhn, immediate past president of the local NTMA chapter, said of RoboBOTS program and other efforts. "We're starting to see it bear fruit."

Kuhn, who owns Kuhn Tool & Die of Meadville, a shop with 19 workers, said the average age in his company is 43.9 years after being much higher about 10 years ago.

"It's not unusual for shops to have an average age in the 50s," Kuhn said. "It's the reason we have been doing so much outreach — whether it's open houses (at companies), career days in schools or RoboBOTS."

Kuhn said RoboBOTS can't claim all the success in attracting young people to the local industry, but it does help.

"It's taking that multiple-point approach that's helping us fill the pipeline," Kuhn said of finding younger workers for the tooling and machining industry.

Did you know?

From National Association of Manufacturers' "A Growth Agenda": Manufacturing supports about 17.2 million jobs in the U.S. — about one in six private sector jobs.

-In 2011, the average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earned $77,060 annually including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $60,168.

-Manufacturing in the U.S. produces $1.8 trillion of value each year — or 12.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.

-Manufacturing has the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector — for every $1 spent in manufacturing, another $1.48 is added to the economy.

-Taken alone, manufacturing in the U.S. would be the 10th largest economy in the world.


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Information from: The Meadville Tribune, http://www.meadvilletribune.com

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