The Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) Tech Conference just ended, and I had a chance to talk to many of the stalwarts in the machining business. I was hoping to get a feel for the hiring situation that was more nuanced than “you just can’t find good people,” which I know is the fall-back cliché of folks who are going through the motions of building their businesses.
The feedback I received was insightful. Victor DaCruz of DaCruz Manufacturing Inc. in Connecticut told me that he thinks the hiring issues are resolving themselves even in one of the most expensive locations in America. He says young people have moved away from the litany of “you must go to college to get a good job.” They have bought into the technical training idea that avoids the college debt malaise that kids see bedeviling their peers. He recently advertised looking for a person to train as a quality inspector and was engulfed in applicants. He wasn’t offering a fortune, $14 per hour, which is Amazon or Kohl’s type of pay for the area. Victor accepts the notion that he will need to do some in-house training to bring a new person to his standard, but he is optimistic that he can find bright young people to build his firm.
Mike Petrusch of Cox Manufacturing in San Antonio was not so upbeat about the caliber of folks who are available to him in San Antonio. He says the kids coming to Cox out of local tech schools are woefully weak in math skills and basic machine shop fundamentals. They also are quite naive about their value in the real world. On the other hand, Mike shepherded a half dozen fresh young faces to the conference so Cox must be finding a few nuggets in the dross.
Harry and Scott Eighmy of American Turned Products run a successful machining firm in Erie, Pennsylvania. To some degree they have built their family firm on the bones of unionized old companies like General Electric and American Sterilizer Company. GE’s locomotive division used to be the largest employer in Erie, but most of the operation that survives is in Texas today. The $28 per hour staring pay negotiated by the unions killed the Erie operation and left a residue of overpaid, unmotivated blue-collar workers in the town.
Though the sclerotic big firms are withering, a profitable batch of entrepreneurs have built on the infrastructure of blue-collar skills to build successful manufacturing firms. GE Locomotive was sloppily managed, but the culture of machining skills it fostered through the years has been the fertilizer that has helped resourceful people in Erie to thrive.
The economic news of the week gives a multicolored picture of the labor market we are dealing with in the machining world. Profits are coming in happily robust for the gigantic public companies like Google and Chase Bank. The tax cuts are definitely giving them a boost. Small business confidence has also soared over the past 18 months to almost record levels. Biggest problem is hiring. Interest rates are trending up. The 10-year Treasury which dictates mortgage rates has finally nudged the 3% level, meaning that house financing is costing more. New home sales are not as robust as we would expect in a 4% unemployment environment.
The Tuesday Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article on how Warren Buffett’s railroad, the BNSF, is paying signing bonuses of up to $25,000 to get hard-to-find employees. I’ve also been reading about bottlenecks in the Permian Basin of Texas, America’s Saudi Arabia, which are making it hard to get the oil to pipelines and ports.
Another interesting stat this week is that shipments of Class 8 trucks for the first quarter were the second highest in history. Trucking firms are really struggling to hire drivers now, yet they are ordering a lot of new big rigs.
If you imbibe the popular media you might think America is a mess, but for folks on the front lines of making and moving stuff it is a beautiful moment to be working.
Question: Do you think it is a good time to quit your job?