Manufacturers from throughout the Lehigh Valley gathered at the ArtsQuest Center Thursday afternoon for a discussion of various challenges facing their industry, including corporate tax rates, access to money for expansion and government regulation.
But the overriding concern of the first-ever Greater Lehigh Valley Manufacturers Summit was finding qualified workers.
The need for skilled workers was part of Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent's 12-minute address to the 170 business people at the summit, and it dominated a 25-minute panel discussion featuring six executives of small, medium and large area businesses.
So it was fitting that the summit culminated with a presentation by Nancy Dischinat, executive director of Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board, who zipped through several ways the manufacturers could help have their needs met.
Congressman Dent got to the problem of finding skilled manufacturing workers after first telling the summit that the 35 percent corporate tax rate is "ridiculous" and "absurd" and should be closer to 25 percent; that getting the approval of the Food and Drug Administration for medical devices "takes forever," and that the Environmental Protection Agency is imposing "enormous" burdens on industry and that it is "my job to make sure Washington doesn't treat natural gas the way it treats oil and coal."
Dent noted there are more than 600,000 unfilled jobs for machinists, lathe operators and welders.
He also said that the nation's immigration policy should be shaped to target people with certain skills. When students from overseas graduate with a science degree from an American university, Dent said, "there should be a green card stapled to that diploma." Instead, Dent said, "The focus [of U.S. immigration policy] has been family reunification, and that leads to chain migration."
During the panel discussion, some of the business executives placed blame for the lack of skilled workers on the education system.
Dick Bus, president of ATAS International Inc., a metal roofing manufacturer, said his company is looking to hire 10 employees. He said ATAS gives applicants an exam called "the Ruler Test" -- "You know, they have to show they're able to use a ruler. Things are that bad, because of our failing school system."
Bruce Heugel, senior vice president and CFO of medical device manufacturer B. Braun, said, "The educational system cannot be relied upon" to produce skilled workers on its own. He said his company has helped in the training of 600 students at local trade schools, and has a partnership with the Catasauqua Area School District. "You have to be more aggressive in getting [prospective workers] trained," he advised.
Gary Bender, CFO at ABEC, which manufactures bioreactors and fermentation equipment for the pharmaceutical industry, said his company works with high school administrators and guidance counselors to let them know what jobs are available. "We remind them, 'We are your customers,' and they're surprised when they hear that," Bender said. "They think parents are their only customers. ... The schools need our input."
Patrick Claussen, director of finance at Eco-Tech Marine, which makes high-tech aquarium pumps and pedicure spa jets, said his company has found qualified workers through internships and by working on projects with Lehigh University. "That way we find people who might otherwise leave the Lehigh Valley," he said.
Dischinat told the summit that of the 277,633 jobs in the Lehigh Valley, about 13.3 percent -- 37,100 of them -- are manufacturing jobs, adding, "That's 1,400 more of them than on this date last year"
to a smattering of applause.
She said 12,402 unemployed workers sought help from the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board last year, and urged the business people at the summit to consider hiring some of them.
Dischinat noted that Lehigh Carbon Community College, Northampton Community College, Lehigh Career and Technical Institute and the Career Institute of Technology "are all working together on meeting the skills-level gap" and that "you can have major input" in what is taught.
She pointed out that there are Workforce centers in four area high schools, and that businesses can help bridge the skills-level gap through internships, job shadowing and career-linking academies. "We need your help," Dischinat concluded.