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LI manufacturing jobs go unfilled due to lack of skills

Instructor John Williams, left, teaches Robert Wedell, 57,

Instructor John Williams, left, teaches Robert Wedell, 57, of Centereach, how to use a desktop vertical mill at the Advanced Manufacturing Training Center at Suffolk County Community College's Brentwood campus, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. Credit: Heather Walsh

Long Island manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of skilled labor.

Employers and workplace experts say that jobs for machinists, tool and die makers, welders, solderers, high-level blueprint readers, quality-control inspectors and regulatory-affairs experts are going unfilled in some local workplaces because employers can’t find enough qualified candidates.

Manufacturers across a range of specialties that include aerospace, defense, pharmaceuticals and food have trouble finding enough workers with even entry-level technical skills.

“We’re looking at gaps in skills across the entire spectrum of the manufacturing workforce,” said Anne Shybunko-Moore, president of GSE Dynamics Inc., an aerospace and military-parts manufacturer in Hauppauge. She is founder and chair of the Manufacturing Consortium of Long Island, whose mission is to grow the local industrial base.

The jobs often offer competitive pay. The median salary on Long Island for a machinist, who operates machine tools to produce precision parts, for example, is $52,000 a year, versus $23,220 a year for a home health aide, one of the Island’s fastest-growing occupations, state Labor Department data show.

Some aerospace and pharmaceutical manufacturers have vacant jobs that pay $20 to $30 an hour.

Tool and die makers at Check-Mate Industries, a West Babylon company that manufactures products for aerospace, automotive, firearms, cosmetics and medical industries, can earn six-figure salaries with overtime, said Regina Vieweg, chairwoman and chief executive.

The employees at Check-Mate regularly work overtime to make up for the shortage of workers. “In our tool room, they never work less than 55 hours a week,” Vieweg said.

Vieweg has had to pass up contracts because of a lack of skilled labor, she said.

These jobs are going unfilled at a time when data suggest plenty of Long Islanders are still looking for work despite the improving economy. The number of unemployed Long Island residents totaled 60,500 in October, the latest data from the state Labor Department show. That’s down 100 from a year earlier, but it’s still above the pre-recession level of 48,200 in October 2006. (The labor department focuses on yearly comparisons because the data aren’t adjusted for seasonal fluctuations in employment.)

And though the Long Island unemployment rate was only 4.1 percent in October, that statistic doesn’t reflect residents who work part time because they can’t find full-time work.

The Island needs higher-paying jobs to counter the rise of low-wage jobs during the economic recovery, experts said.

“If you have high-paying jobs that are available to Long Island, it means that people who are hired will be spending that money, and that, in turn, would add to the economic well-being of the Island,” said Martin Melkonian, associate professor of economics at Hofstra University.

But the number of jobs in manufacturing, 72,000 in October, was at an all-time low for that month, state Labor Department data show. Employers said the sector is poised to perform better — if they can find enough help.

The pool of candidates for manufacturing jobs fell victim to a number of changes. One of the chief reasons is that once-dominant defense contractors like Grumman barely have a presence now.

“Grumman was a feeder for small business, but we lost that infrastructure,” Shybunko-Moore said.

Henry Kleitsch, president of H & H Technologies Inc., a Ronkonkoma parts manufacturer for the aerospace, defense and medical industries, blames the negative perceptions he said the media perpetuates about manufacturing jobs.

“It can be a cool job, where maybe they have the perception that it is dark and dreary and manual labor,” Kleitsch said. “It’s not like that anymore. It is highly automated.”

He and other employers warned that the shortages are likely to worsen because of the aging of the manufacturing workforce and retirements.

Training is the solution for increasing the pool of skilled labor, employers and workplace experts said. Through training, they said, some unemployed — or underemployed — Long Islanders could gain the skills manufacturers need.

However, many Long Island companies are too small to provide training. Nearly 80 percent of the Island’s 2,958 manufacturing companies have fewer than 20 employees, according to 2014 census data, the latest available.

“Most of these companies are not big enough to have someone dedicated as a trainer,” said Patricia Malone, executive director of the Center for Corporate Education at Stony Brook University.

Even larger companies like Allegiant Health, a Deer Park pharmaceutical and dietary supplement manufacturer that has about 130 employees, said devoting time to train people in the blending and compressing processes for making tablets isn’t feasible.

“That basically drains the resources in the organization,” said Brian Li, Allegiant’s president and chief executive.

So employers turn to learning institutions such as Suffolk County Community College and Farmingdale State College for candidates who complete their certificate or degree programs related to manufacturing. The competition to hire graduates is fierce. And the number of graduates is not nearly enough to meet companies’ needs.

Suffolk Community graduates “get jobs right away,” Kleitsch said. “So there aren’t a lot of people to go around. It would be nice to have a much bigger program.”

John Lombardo, associate vice president of workforce and economic development at Suffolk Community, said the college has trained more than 1,000 individuals over the past 10 years in machining, welding, soldering, programming and general manufacturing skills, with a 90 percent placement rate. Most students in the program get a job within weeks of graduating, Lombardo said. The training program has 50 local participating manufacturing companies.

The school recently received a $2.9 million federal grant that Lombardo hopes will allow the program to train more than 300 people over four years in fields experiencing shortages, including manufacturing.

“Every day I get a call from a company looking for people,” he said.

Rocco DeVito, a training manager at the Greenlawn facility of U.K.-based BAE Systems, a manufacturer of defense and aerospace systems, teaches a manufacturing course on the soldering and repair of electronic assemblies at Suffolk Community College and said recruiters and temp agencies call him regularly.

“They say, ‘Rocco, the next time you graduate a class, give me some names,’ ” he said.

Victoria Varas, 28, of Bay Shore, who lost a customer-service job in April, studied this semester with DeVito, received her manufacturing solderer certification Nov. 10 and landed a job three weeks later at a Hauppauge electronic-parts manufacturer. “I put my information online and I had a few agencies call me and I went in for an interview and got the job almost right away,” she said.

Middle Island resident Joseph Gadbois Sr., 58, a Brookhaven Lab employee who helps run the steam and heating system there, is taking a welding class at Suffolk in hopes of getting a welding job at his current employer.

“It would be a step up,” he said.

Farmingdale State offers a bachelor of science degree in manufacturing engineering technology, said Jeff Hung, associate professor in the mechanical engineering technology department. The program has 35 to 40 students. Required courses include computer-aided manufacturing and manufacturing processes, he said.

“We have a couple of big companies that look for our students,” he said.

In August, Stony Brook University established its Manufacturing and Technology Resource Consortium after winning a state competition, executive director Jeffrey Saelens said. The group will receive $950,000 a year in state and federal funds over five years to help manufacturers, with a quarter of the money slated to go toward workforce training.

In three focus groups with a total of 50 employers that Stony Brook facilitated in the fall of 2014, there were calls for a broader approach to the problem.

“The theme across the board from the employers was that they needed a regional approach to cultivating talent for their pipelines,” Malone said.

She said there is a need for “pre-employment workplace-readiness programs” that would teach disadvantaged workers who can’t progress from part-time laborers because they lack fundamental skills such as basic math and improved language skills.

“If we could put our effort together to create a talent pool from those that are hoping to connect but don’t have the opportunity, we now create a richer emerging pipeline,” she said.

Some businesses believe the state has to take the lead in ensuring the Island has enough skilled workers.

The state Department of Labor said the agency “offers a multitude of services and resources free of charge to businesses looking to build a skilled workforce, including customized recruitments, tax incentive hiring programs, and apprenticeship programs,” a spokesman said.

Shybunko-Moore said the state’s role is key. “New York State has to put the resources into training these people, because it is too much of a burden on small business to do everything,” she said.

She added, “If you train them, we will hire them.”

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