Low-skilled workers at risk as manufacturing becomes more technical

When the plant where Sabina D'Antonio worked inspecting fiber-optic components suddenly shut down last year, she figured she had enough skills to find another job despite the recession.

But finding more work has proved difficult — and the recession hasn't been her only hindrance.

"I do not have any college education, which is killing me now," said D'Antonio, who was employed at a solar energy plant before working for Infinera Corp. in Annapolis Junction. Despite "what I have been doing for years, I now have to have a degree to prove myself."

The manufacturing base in Maryland continues to shrink, as companies consolidate, mechanize and move work overseas to take advantage of cheap labor. But another trend — the growth of high-tech manufacturers — has emerged.

That means the manufacturing jobs being created are mostly in high-tech fields that require more skills and education than traditional "smokestack" manufacturing jobs. Moreover, the economy has allowed manufacturers to become pickier about filling jobs, and many have raised their standards as high unemployment means more job applicants from whom to choose.

The industry's transition threatens the livelihoods of people like D'Antonio, who, despite limited education, could once build solid middle-class lives working in manufacturing jobs. D'Antonio, who lives in Odenton, has gone nearly seven months without full-time employment. While she has found openings in manufacturing jobs, she has discovered that she is underqualified for many of them.

Two events this month underscored the evolution in the manufacturing sector. One day, Middle River Aircraft Systems unveiled plans to hire 200 people to build jet brakes at its Baltimore County plant. The next day, Solo Cup Co. announced plans to close its Owings Mills manufacturing facility in two years and eliminate 540 jobs.

"Historically, manufacturing jobs were in the production part of the business," said Mike Galiazzo, executive director of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. "They are no longer hiring a lot of the $18-an-hour people. They are hiring a lot of high-paid, high-tech people. The days of getting a good-paying job with just a high school diploma are over.

"It is the transformation of the industry," he said. "It has to do more with the level of skill sets. The lower the skill sets, the harder it will be to find a manufacturing job."

There were 114,900 manufacturing workers in Maryland as of April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the lowest figure since the U.S. Department of Labor began tracking in 1990. In Baltimore, there were 13,000 manufacturing workers.

But as the job pool has shrunk, manufacturing wages have increased, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Average weekly wages were $1,335 per employee in the fourth quarter of 2009, up from $1,227 the year before and $1,005 in 2002. Industry observers said that's an indication of the growing number of high-tech manufacturing jobs.

This year, several old-line manufacturing firms have announced plans to leave the state or cut workers.

At Solo Cup, where lost jobs will include assembly line work, company officials said they were looking to cut costs by consolidating work at plants across the country. The Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County announced a short-term shutdown.

The steel mill, which once employed tens of thousands, has been struggling under Russian owner Severstal, which instituted temporary layoffs of hundreds of workers because of low demand.

BP Solar announced it is laying off 320 manufacturing workers at its Frederick operations, which handled silicon casting, wafering and cell manufacturing. It has shifted work to lower-cost, joint-venture facilities in India and China, as well as to outside manufacturers in Europe and Mexico.

Many manufacturers noted the fragility of the industry when the Baltimore City Council considered an energy tax to help close a $121 million gap between projected revenue and spending in the $2.2 billion budget. More than a dozen turned out to protest the proposal, with many smaller companies saying it could put them out of business. An amendment to institute the tax was never introduced.

Meanwhile, Maryland is building a small niche in new technologies. Like much of Maryland's economy, high-tech manufacturers have benefited from the state's proximity to the seat of the federal government.

Smiths Detection in Edgewood has increased its work force by 40 percent and expanded the plant from 87,000 square feet to 145,000 square feet over the past 18 months. The company expanded to bring some overseas work back to the United States to be closer to two of its customers — the Department of Defense and the Transportation Security Administration.

Workers at the Edgewood plant are producing a device that will help soldiers detect chemical warfare agents and other toxic chemicals in the air. They also are making an advanced X-ray machine for airports.

The jobs are specialized, and the company often hires people with training from places such as the TESST College of Technology, which offers associate's degrees.

"These are more high-tech manufacturing jobs in the sense that these are highly sensitive instruments that at the same time have to be rugged," said Tim Picciotti, a vice president at Smiths Detection.

Gene L. Burner, president of the Manufacturers' Alliance of Maryland, said a number of factors have hurt the manufacturing industry, including the economy, the business environment in Maryland and overseas competition.

State budget cuts have left less funding for job-training programs, and companies are having difficulty finding workers with even basic skills, Burner said.

But he doesn't think the manufacturing industry is dead.

"I think the biggest mistake people can make is to write off the industry," Burner said. "It's not going away. It may look a little different, but it will be there."

Galiazzo said traditional manufacturing companies have to learn to be more innovative.

Five years ago, Lion Brothers Inc., an Owings Mills company that makes embroidered emblems such as those worn by Girl Scouts, began looking at new ways to expand the business. The company was having a hard time attracting new clients, and sales were flat.

The company began looking at ways to customize orders. It created a way for college bookstores to attach specialized emblems to sweat shirts on the premises. Before, sweat shirts were mass-produced with the emblem and then shipped to bookstores.

Lion Brothers created a website where Girl Scouts could create individualized T-shirts. Lion Brothers will make the T-shirts in the factory and send them directly to each Scout. And the company came up with more efficient ways to operate, such as using lasers to cut fabric.

The changes have worked, putting the company on pace for at least a 30 percent increase in revenue this year, said Chief Executive Susan J. Ganz. The privately held company also has been able to bring some manufacturing back from overseas.

"We've gained new markets, new business and a healthy bottom line," Ganz said.

But for workers like D'Antonio, times could get tougher. D'Antonio said she is a quick learner, has a good work ethic and strong recommendations from bosses, and has picked up a range of skills in previous jobs. But it seems to take more than that these days, D'Antonio said, and fewer companies are training onsite anymore.

As she continues to look for work, D'Antonio is living off savings and keeping herself occupied with her hobby of photography.

"My resume shows I can go from one field to another and succeed," D'Antonio said. "It's just finding someone that will give me that chance."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

http://twitter.com/ankwalker

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
61°