An aging workforce worries Long Island manufacturers who say they’re in dire need of a pipeline of skilled young workers to meet current and future demand.
The worsening worker shortage has galvanized competitors to come together and work with local academic institutions to promote manufacturing career opportunities to the Island’s youth. With so many retirements on the horizon, that effort has become a rallying cry for some.
“I'm taking a hands-on, from-the-top approach to this, because it's the most important thing that we could be doing right now to improve and grow our businesses, bar none,” said Robert Kufner, chief executive and president of Designatronics, a 73-year-old manufacturer of small mechanical components and assemblies.
Kufner said it’s become paramount that manufacturers and educators get the word out that today's manufacturing jobs are not the "dirty work" many envision but instead are performed in high-tech facilities and offer good pay and opportunities for advancement — without the burden of college loans. A small talent pool is an issue that concerns him and his competitors alike, he said.
“There's a very small set of applicants because of the education infrastructure and the current culture saying it's better to go and get your college degree rather than chase a trade,” said Kufner, whose company employs around 200 workers locally.
Kufner and others in manufacturing said their message is not that students should forgo college if they want to attend, but rather that there are good opportunities in the sector for those who choose not to attend, those who choose to delay college, and those who have already graduated.
Many manufacturers on the Island, like Designatronics, already have tuition assistance programs in place for employees who want to advance into more varied or higher-level positions that require degrees, like engineering roles.
A growing number of positions, even many entry-level jobs, require individuals to have an aptitude for working with both their hands and with complex computer programs.
Retirement wave coming
Despite years of job losses in the manufacturing field, which saw the number of positions on Long Island fall to 67,600 jobs in the first quarter of this year from over 102,000 in the same period in 2000, the sector is expected to see an increase in the coming years.
By 2030, the number of local manufacturing jobs, buoyed in large part by the growth of pharmaceutical and food manufacturing businesses, is expected to grow to 80,270, according to 10-year industry projections by the state Labor Department. At the same time, many workers in the sector are likely to leave in the coming years, according to federal data.
Many of the openings will be the result of retirements. More than 35% of the Island's manufacturing workers were 55 or older during the first quarter of this year, the largest age cohort in the industry, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The state estimates there will be jobs for 2,050 machinists by 2030, up from the 1,690 estimated to be working in the field in 2020. But whether companies can fill those extra openings, along with hundreds of vacancies created by retirements, remains an open question.
Median annual wages for machinists, who set up, operate and repair machine tools that produce precision parts, are $60,461, with entry level workers making an estimated $20.77 an hour, according to 2023 occupational wage data from the state. Experienced machinists earn an average of $70,681, or $34 an hour.
Fighting outdated perceptions
A major hurdle to recruitment stems from outdated ideas of what the modern factory looks like, Kufner said. That shapes the attitudes of parents and their children.
“Their parents aren't telling them manufacturing is a good way of life,” he said. “They're telling them you’ve got to go to [college] and figure it out.”
But Kufner said there’s a growing contingent of manufacturers who are collaborating to help raise awareness of the careers available to local students and soon-to-be job seekers.
“We're finally getting folks to start working together,” Kufner said; “businesses committing to working with high schools and colleges to start developing this concept of, ‘Hey, you don't have to go to [college] to make a great living here on Long Island.' ”
Will Tarpey, 15, a West Islip High School sophomore, said he was eager to learn more about work opportunities in the aerospace industry while attending a Manufacturing Day expo at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood earlier this month.
Manufacturing Day, an annual national initiative meant to introduce high schoolers and college-aged job seekers to the sector, this year was expanded locally by manufacturers and their advocates, like the Advanced Manufacturing Training Center at SCCC, to multiple days of events to broaden its reach.
The events, organized by Manufacturing Day Long Island, a loose collection of businesses and educators on the Island, included two expos, one at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City and one at SCCC, tours of the community college's manufacturing training center, and tours of several local manufacturing facilities for students.
“I have wanted to come out here and see what manufacturing was really like with all these different companies,” said Tarpey, a member of his school’s robotics team. “Maybe see if I could get an internship, start a little bit early and get my future career lined up and ready to go.”
Tarpey, who has had a passion for computers and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) since early childhood, said he’d ideally like to find work in manufacturing at a company that could help reimburse some college tuition costs.
His mother, Colleen, who accompanied him on his visit to the expo, said she was relieved to hear about the various career tracks and tuition assistance offerings at many manufacturers.
“A lot of the manufacturers here seem to have tuition assistance programs, or actual tuition payment programs, where you agree to come back and work for them for a little bit after graduation, and they pay for your education,” she said. "I think that's fantastic.”
Struggle to find candidates
Finding students like Tarpey, with an aptitude for technology and an interest in the industry, is a challenge, manufacturing executives said.
“Getting the right people is very hard,” said Ed Sottile, director of manufacturing and process engineering at Oerlikon Metco, a maker of industrial coating machines in Westbury. “We need people ... who understand technology and are able to think outside the box.”
Candidates must be comfortable with computers, since many processes today rely on computer numerical control machines, or CNCs — automated tools that use programmed instructions to precisely fabricate parts.
Metco, a 90-year-old local company acquired by Switzerland-based manufacturing giant Oerlikon in 2014, provides the coatings — and their application machinery — that cover metal components used in the health care, aerospace and defense industries.
Sottile said the local operation, which has around 300 employees, is in desperate need of a base of employees to recruit from in the coming years as long-time specialists at Metco continue to retire.
“Our shop is full of tenured machinists,” Sottile said. “Some have been here 28, 30 years and they are making a very good salary. Those people are going to move on.”
Sottile said the key to helping shore up that future workforce is reaching kids before they graduate.
“You’ve got to start in high school,” he said. “When they walk through, they say, ‘Oh, this is not what I expected a machine shop to look like.’ ”
To attract more workers, the company has strengthened its internship program, Sottile said, hoping to bring in those with the desire to pursue manufacturing while giving them the opportunity to learn on the job.
Varshitha Kodela, 18, a graduate of Smithtown High School West, interned at Metco this past summer and said the experience opened her eyes to a possible future in manufacturing.
“The overall experience was completely different from what I thought it would be,” said Kodela.
During her last two years in high school, Kodela, now a freshman at Virginia Tech, participated in her school’s robotics team and took an elective course in computer-integrated manufacturing. Those experiences prepared her for the internship, she said.
“What I learned in high school was the basis of what I was able to do at Oerlikon,” she said. “It boosted my confidence a lot.”
Kodela plans to get her degree in computer science, and she said manufacturing is a field she could see herself entering when she graduates.
“Learning about how computer science is being incorporated in the manufacturing field has given me the idea that I can be a software engineer working in manufacturing,” she said.
That firsthand experience in a modern factory is an important component in getting both students and their parents over the longtime misconceptions of what manufacturing looks like today.
No longer a 'dirty job'
“When it comes to manufacturing, most people don’t know what it is,” said Laura Galletta, program director of SCCC’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in Brentwood. “That is a big challenge that we have.”
Often, Galletta said, parents and students believe that manufacturing is a “dirty job” with little in the way of career growth. As head of one of the few training facilities on the Island dedicated to manufacturing, part of her job is to help dispel those preconceived notions.
“That’s the perception we’re trying to change,” Galletta said. And while some factory operations may have less sophisticated technology and offer more traditional assembly-line jobs, automated tools and robotics have become more common, she said.
While the center, launched in 2009, has largely worked with older adults making a career change or those hoping to increase their marketability in the industry, Galletta said there’s been a small shift in recent years to high school and even recent college grads looking for training.
The federal government has also taken notice of the certificate training offered at the SCCC facility.
The center earlier this year received a $2 million, five-year grant from the Navy to cover the tuition of 500 students — about $4,000 per trainee — who want to pursue certificate programs in welding or CNC operating.
“The pipeline isn’t there but we’re working hard to get it there,” Galletta said.
Pablo Villatoro, 23, started his journey as a machinist at Designatronics without much mechanical experience, he admits, but has come to really enjoy the work.
“I’m not a handyman so they had to teach me,” said Villatoro, a Jamaica, Queens resident who's been working at the manufacturer since 2021.
Villatoro came to the United States from Guatemala in 2017. Although he was one year away from completing high school in his home country, when he came to the States, his credits didn’t transfer and he had to repeat his schooling, a major setback, he said.
For six months after graduating, he said he was at a loss.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Villatoro, who was on track to study computer science in Guatemala. “I wanted to go to college, but it was expensive, and I did not have any help.”
That’s when a friend of his father, who had previous job experience in manufacturing, mentioned a potential job at Designatronics.
Villatoro said he worried about being able to do the work and keep up with his older, experienced coworkers. Over time, though, he said he’s continued to learn and hopes to take a certificate training course to increase his skillset and career prospects at the company.
“It’s very fascinating how from a drawing and a piece of metal you can get all those parts to make a machine that goes to hospitals,” he said. “We make that part and we don’t know where it goes, but it goes to help people out there.”
Long Island manufacturers are currently advertising hundreds of openings, including dozens of jobs for machinists and other specialized workers.
Here's a sampling of job titles and salary ranges:
Packaging operator: $18-$22 per hour
Cylindrical grinding machinist: $18-$31 per hour
Machinist: $20-$35 per hour
Mechanical assembler: $25 per hour
CNC Programmer: $25-$35 per hour
Senior metal fabricator: $35-$40 per hour