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Pennsylvania manufacturer thrives, if only it can find good workers

FAIRVIEW, Pennsylvania — The instant you walk into the massive, 750,000-square-foot PHB Industries tool and die plant, the smells and sounds of the buzz and hum of machines and people making things engulfs your senses; instantly, you are aware you are in a place where man, woman, technology, natural resources, and robotics all collaborate for a multitude of product creation and assembly.



a group of people posing for the camera: If you are looking for a place that has low turnover and is eager and aggressively looking to persuade young people to become skilled workers and invest in their future, this is also your place. (Justin Merriman/Washington Examiner)


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If you are looking for a place that has low turnover and is eager and aggressively looking to persuade young people to become skilled workers and invest in their future, this is also your place. (Justin Merriman/Washington Examiner)

Aluminum die-casting, zinc die-casting, machines of every size, shape, and capabilities are everywhere, some run by a computer, some giving off thousands of degrees of heat, and some guided by skilled workers.

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The plant serves a multitude of markets that include household and industrial plastics, appliances, electronics, telecommunications, medical equipment, industrial equipment, and aerospace and defense industries.

Their customers are here in the United States and as far away as India and China.

If you are looking for a place that makes things, that allows you to buy American in a place that is hiring Americans, you need to look no further than here. The family-oriented business is owned by John Hilbert, who is the CEO of PHB, and his brother, William Hilbert Jr., who is the CEO of sister company RedDog Industries.

If you are looking for a place that has low turnover and is eager and aggressively looking to persuade young people to become skilled workers and invest in their future, this is also your place.

PHB employs 500, RedDog 60; John Hilbert said their biggest problem is not production but “finding people.”

He explained: “Overall, we’ve come through the whole COVID thing. April [and] part of March were the worst in the company’s history, as I’m sure that’s no surprise, but we’ve rebounded. Our customers have come back pretty strong. Beginning the first part of June, we’ve been running six days a week. But our skilled labor has been an issue for years and years. Getting our society in general to appreciate the fact that we need skilled labor and that trades are not a dirty word has been an uphill battle.”

Forty years ago, when manufacturing started to decline, teaching trades in high school became passe, and society decided in response that everyone had to go to college. Parents felt pressured, and students felt pressured, even when neither thought it was necessarily a good fit for their kids, themselves, or either person’s pocketbook.

“Everybody doesn’t have to go to college,” said Hilbert. “You’ve heard this, and we’ve spent, my brother and a couple of other folks, have spent a tremendous amount of time pounding that home.”

President Trump, who has made manufacturing a priority of his administration since the day he took office, has made funding worker training and education to fill manufacturing jobs a significant part of the Department of Labor’s budget.

Manufacturing jobs have historically been very well-paying jobs with good benefits; Trump’s replacement of NAFTA for people in places like here in Erie or due west in Youngstown is considered by many voters as one of the most important things the president has done.

In February of this year, Trump proposed a $900 million increase in education spending to teach skills and trades, the first time in years significant monies were proposed for that sector.

The Hilbert brothers, frustrated by the lack of local interest or knowledge in exposing young people to these types of jobs, jobs still looked down upon by the intellectual class, decided to collaborate with other local companies to adopt local high schools and conduct seminars to attract them to their apprentice program.

“We went and talked to kids and conducted seminars with as many as two to four to six to eight kids. But there aren’t 30 kids interested in this business,” explained brother William. “We’re trying to improve that as we go. We’re trying to, by word of mouth, grow and let people appreciate the fact that these are life-sustaining, family-sustaining jobs that they’re passing up to go to school.”

“We simply lay it out for them and tell them, ‘Girls, guys, by the time you’re done going to college, you’ll have 40 to $80,000 in debt racked up,” said John, “and we’ll introduce them to a young man or a young woman who has gone through a training program of two years making $40,000 to $60,000 a year driving a brand new car and buying a house.”

Four young men who have made it through the program and earned their way up in the company — Justin Sommers, Luke Tarr, Evin Dougherty, and Bill Hilbert III — all started as apprentices.

“Everyone here starts at the bottom. We certainly did,” explained John, pointing to his brother William. “The first job we both had here was at 14 cleaning toilets.”

For generations, people in the U.S. were known for their work ethic, for making things, for using their hands alongside their intellect, from farming to mining to building roads and bridges. Our parents and grandparents and their parents before them built this country with those types of skills.

Those same jobs are often not just financially rewarding, but also emotionally rewarding, often giving children and grandchildren the opportunity to remain in the very communities that suit them rather than migrating to larger cities or faraway states that break up those family and community bonds.

“The manufacturing of today is not dirty,” explained William. “It is not dark and dirt. It is very clean, very well lit, and very high-tech. And that is the problem. There’s too many people who have the wrong impression with regard to what we do here. They drive by, and they look, and they have no idea what’s going up. Everything we produce is produced by computer. You have to be hand-skilled.”

The opportunities are endless; people such as the Hilberts just need young people to seize them.

Tags: News, Manufacturing, Pennsylvania

Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Pennsylvania manufacturer thrives, if only it can find good workers

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