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Labor shortage hits local manufacturers

“All of these are supposed to be running. We don’t have the people to do it,” said Ron Krisher, motioning with his hand to the production machines that sit idle at Therm-O-Link, the company he co-owns in Garrettsville.

About 30 people work there making insulated copper wire for various industries, including automobile, agricultural and appliance, and for the military.

The plant, within a few blocks from Garrettsville’s busy Main Street, needs about 100. In this community, Therm-O-Link pays the highest wage — about $20 per hour not including an extra $2-per-hour attendance bonus — yet the company can’t find workers, its president, Brian R. Jenkins, said.

It’s the same situation at Thermo-O-Link’s sister plant in Warren, Vulkor, where tin electroplating is done. There, they have about 32 employees; they need about 60.

Manufacturers, like retailers and restaurants, find themselves desperate for employees and struggle to catch up with an economy recovering from the pandemic.

It’s a problem happening across the Mahoning Valley and likely, the U.S. One person with close ties to local manufacturers said she routinely takes calls from manufacturers looking for help.

The result at Therm-O-Link is customers are finding the sheathed copper wire they need for their products elsewhere, like Mexico and China, Krisher said.

Still, they’re trying to keep up. The equipment at Therm-O-Link, Jenkins said, is booked six to eight weeks out. It should take about four weeks to fill an order.

“We can’t service our customers like we are used to,” Jenkins said. “This business was built on delivery and our backlog is something we’ve never had, and that is not what the company is built on, it was built on service.”

“Absolutely,” Jenkins said when asked if customers are finding the parts they need elsewhere when Therm-O-Link can’t.

“They are under great pressure to deliver harnesses and they are going to go anywhere they can to do that,” he said. “This is a real commodity. It might as well be corn or soybeans. There is no contract, you take a PO (purchase order) and you fill it.”

WIDESPREAD PROBLEM

“We hear it every day and I’ve been fielding more phone calls from manufacturing companies in the community who haven’t been involved with MVMC (Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition), but they are looking for ways to approach this, so it’s definitely a common theme,” Jessica Borza, MVMC executive director, said.

MVMC helps local manufacturers identify needs and help with solutions to grow and upskill the local workforce through various methods, including training programs.

The organization recently became involved with a grassroots campaign with different community organizations “to make sure everyone living in the three-county area truly understands that good jobs exist in manufacturing and how to connect with them or how to connect with those training programs.”

There is a waiting list of companies, she said, committed to hiring through the training programs, like WorkAdvance, a fast-track program that tailors the training to the needs of the company for people with little to no manufacturing experience.

A recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the workforce crisis found, in part:

• 28 percent who responded agreed a lot of people are not looking for work because they can do just as well collecting unemployment;

• 16 percent say the amount of money they receive in unemployment and other government programs makes it not worth looking for work;

• 49 percent of Americans who became unemployed during the pandemic say they are not actively or not very actively looking for work;

• 13 percent who became unemployed during the pandemic turned down at least one job offer in the past year;

• 24 percent say child care and family needs prevent them from looking for work, 28 percent say lack of available jobs in still-suffering sectors, and 19 percent report still having concern regarding COVID-19;

• 23 percent say they lack the skills or experience needed for most jobs available right now.

Borza said she found the last point particularly noteworthy.

“This presents a large opportunity for manufacturers to recruit individuals from other industries and upskill them quickly,” she said. “It also makes programs like WorkAdvance critical to equip those career switching individuals with the skills they need to enter into and advance along career pathways in manufacturing.”

LOCAL PROBLEMS

At Therm-O-Link, the plant runs two, 12-hour shifts five days per week. That’s good enough, Jenkins said, to run half of the machines.

“The other half shuts down,” he said.

Market share is the portion of a market controlled by a company or product. The impact of the labor shortage on Therm-O-Link’s market share is “still undetermined because we’re all in the same boat (as) all of our competitors,” Jenkins said.

“But we’re losing to Mexican manufacturers, the Chinese,” Krisher said.

“Exactly, because they were able to come out (of the pandemic) first, they get the market share, so now we’re fighting,” Jenkins said.

At the Brilex Group of Companies in Youngstown — Brilex Industries, Taylor-Winfield Technologies, Brilex Technical Solutions and BBM Railway Equipment — the biggest challenge to finding employees is the lack of applications coming down the pipe, according to Mary Ann Billet, human resources director for the Brilex Group.

“We have taken a three-pronged approach in combating the issue,” Billet wrote in an email. “We have activated an internal referral program, carried out wage adjustments and we are in the final stages of making adjustments in our health benefits in an attempt to lower premiums so the employees have more to take home in their paychecks.”

Steve Davinsizer, president of Brilex Industries, said with the difficult time finding candidates for some of the skilled positions, the company has cross-trained employees “to accommodate many of the needs flowing through our shops.”

“Recognizing there is also a severe deficiency of skilled talent available to start with, we are taking on more training of promising team members and candidates that may not have all the skillsets we currently require,” he said in the email.

Another scenario the company has encountered — returning employees.

“We find ourselves in a very aggressive market where companies, vying for labor, use a variety of ploys in an attempt to attract talent,” he wrote. “We have had a few employees that were in those positions leave for other companies only to find out that the new employers weren’t the fit they had expected and ask to return to their old jobs. The biggest push moving forward will be in the area of training.”

HIGHER WAGES

Higher wages is one option to attracting workers, Albert J. Sumell, economics professor at Youngstown State University, said.

“That comes down to looking at what is the cost of higher wagers and better wages relative to the cost of not having enough employees,” he said.

It’s well established the food service industry is having difficulty with labor, but not those offering $15 per hour, Sumell said.

Industries that can’t afford to wait until workers return have inflated wages, but it depends on the situation of the firm.

“Over the long term, it will be somewhere in between where we were before versus where we are heading in certain industries,” he said.

As government relief programs from the pandemic start to fade away, people will return to work.

“I do think that will relieve some of the pressure in some industries. It certainly won’t hurt in terms of the ability to find workers,” he said. “There will be a systemic change in expectations, wage expectations, benefit expectations for employees. It’s not going to be just, now the benefits are over so everything goes back to the way it was before.

“Like with any other market, when there is a shortage, that causes prices to go up. When prices go up that causes quantity supply to go up and so here, if there is a shortage of workers, particularly in certain industries, and that is causing the price, which is wage, to go up, and as that happens, it is causing more workers to enter the workforce,” he said.

rselak@tribtoday.com

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