Meadville Tribune

Local News

March 20, 2013

RoboBOTS a 'feeder program' into area tooling industry

MEADVILLE — With at least an estimated 250 skilled workers needed each year in the local tooling and machining industry for the next five to 10 years, area firms are continuing to reach out to school students in creative ways to attract them to the profession.

RoboBOTS, a local competitive robot building competition for area high school students, is one way to get young people on a technical career path, according to organizers.

“Every production machine shop is looking for workers,” according to Patrick Faller, human resources manager for Acutec Precision Machining, a local firm with plants in Saegertown and Meadville. Acutec is a manufacturer of precision aerospace parts.

Skilled machinists can be make $16 an hour or more.

“I’m recruiting and trying to make students aware of the jobs that are out there,” Faller said. “We need people with computer programming skills, strong math skills, know units of measure.”

Started seven years, ago, RoboBOTS is sponsored by the northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, a trade group for the industry.

“It’s a feeder program for us, but it’s not a unique idea,” said Brian Deane, who coordinates the event for the northwestern Pennsylvania chapter of NTMA. “Scott Hanaway, our chapter president at the time, had witnessed it in another area of the country and suggested we try it to fill the pipeline (with future workers).”

The NTMA has been using the RoboBOTS program since 2006 to build interest among high school students in technical and manufacturing careers because of a looming shortage of skilled workers.

Manufacturers both here and nationally say the current work force is aging closer to retirement, meaning there is a need not only for machinists, tool and die makers, electricians and welders, but mechanical and electrical engineers and computer engineers.

“We’re hoping kids say ‘This looks interesting — let me check this out,’” Deane said of the program.

“It’s been working because we have a couple (of former RoboBOTS competitors) working here,” Deane said of his own firm, NuTec Tooling Systems, a company that builds machines for manufacturing.

There are an estimated 280 to 300 tooling and machining shops in the region covering Crawford and Erie counties.

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.

The local NTMA chapter estimates about 250 skilled workers will be needed a year for the five to 10 years to replace current workers who will be retiring, while also expanding businesses and integrating new technology into their firms.

“We need people with aptitude and attitude — they have to have the ability to learn,” Faller said. “I tell students that graduate high school or trade school they’re not done learning. Computer software programs are always changing and machines are changing.”

Machinists start out making a base salary of around $10 to $12.50 per hour, but their pay can climb rapidly, Faller said. “They can expect to make $14 to $16 an hour in three to five years.”

On top of that is an estimated $4 to $5 per hour in benefits, he said.

Employees usually can end up working overtime during a week and some can see as much as 15 to 20 hours in overtime in a week, he said.

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