August 24, 2012
How to make it in the manufacturing industry
Dallas Jacobson pushed papers while employed at Washington Mutual as a mortgage specialist. But in 2005, Jacobson decided he wanted to work with his hands in a completely different way. After a stint as a commercial diver, Jacobson went into marine manufacturing.
Today, Jacobson, 36, calls himself a “poor man’s engineer.” He works as a shipfitter at Pacific Fishermen Shipyard/PFI Marine Electric in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. He designs parts and uses logical and mechanical skills to fit pieces of boats together, sketching out replacement parts and fitting them into tight spaces.
A manufacturing career is a good fit for the mechanically inclined, Jacobson says. “With a good skill set, you’ll learn the job fast. It’s challenging work, technically and physically. You can’t be scared of heavy lifting,” in both the physical and mental sense, he says.
Small, nimble plants
Many of the state’s manufacturers don’t fit the stereotype, says John Vicklund, president of Impact Washington, a nonprofit that provides consulting services to small and midsize manufacturing companies.
To learn more about a career in manufacturing, contact the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing, which can help match interests with possible careers, direct toward a specific program, and help make sense of the community and technical college offerings.
The unemployed can contact the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County (WDC) for information on retraining for a manufacturing career.
The WDC also offers career-mapping tool that includes salary ranges and required education/training.
What’s the stereotype? “That iconic Rust Belt image of a huge factory with smokestacks, effluent pouring out the back door into the river, grimy workers in coveralls with lunchboxes punching out with timecards,” he says.
“In fact, 50 percent of the state’s manufacturers have fewer than 10 employees,” Vicklund says. They’re lean, small businesses that use technology to produce goods from raw materials.
Washington-based manufacturing produces $141.5 billion in annual revenue, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. More than 6,700 companies in the state produce $49.2 billion in exports annually with a labor force of more than 271,000. This year, manufacturers added more jobs than usual — 3,600 jobs as of June, seasonally adjusted, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.
“Washington state has been one of the more stable manufacturing environments over the last 10 years,” Vicklund says, mostly because many in-state manufacturers make custom products for use in industry — the components and assemblies that Boeing buys to put into planes, for example, or equipment that uses high-pressure water-jet technology to make laser-like cuts in products such as chicken in food processing and composite materials for aerospace.
Beyond food processing, not many consumer products are crafted in Washington, he says.
Manufacturers are adapting to the new economy, says Mary Kaye Bredeson, director of the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing, which helps to coordinate industry training, certification and hiring efforts. One Sedro-Woolley lumber-processing facility makes a great case example, she says.
“When forestry went down the tubes, they reinvented themselves,” Bredeson says. Now the company helps create fuselages for Boeing 787s, the hulls for racing boats, parts for rapid transit and wind-turbine blades.
Most manufacturers aren’t smoke-belching structures, but discreet assembly spots tucked into industrial office parks, staffed by skilled technicians who can configure and troubleshoot machinery used to create items.
“These are very sophisticated pieces of equipment, driven or directed by designers who are working at a computer-design station," Vicklund says. "They design parts in 3D on a screen, then send directions directly to machinery that makes the part that they just designed."
Math and soft skills are more important today, he says: “In a command-and-control environment, you came to work in the morning, checked your brain at the door and did what your boss told you.” Today, an employee needs to be able to handle custom-design projects, read and interpret a blueprint, work in teams, solve problems, prioritize and schedule tasks.
This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce selected Washington as one of 10 “enterprising states” because of its manufacturing base and investment in manufacturing- and aerospace-related education and training.
“The state’s manufacturing sector — led by aircraft and other transportation equipment building — significantly outperformed the national manufacturing industry since 2001,” according to the U.S. Chamber.
Manufacturers have three common needs when looking for employees, says Thomas McLaughlin, executive director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound: individuals who can operate equipment or manual machines; individuals who can run assembly processes or work in areas such as heat-treating or powder coating; and individuals for support roles such as inventory management, shipping and logistics, quality control, engineering and design.
High-demand careers include precision machining, quality assurance, machine maintenance, fiber optics and composites, according to the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Materials Manufacturing.
Often, necessary skills can be acquired through a community college degree or on-the-job training. However, once manufacturing started migrating offshore (along with jobs), many high schools and community colleges started reducing courses. So trained, effective workers can sometimes be challenging to find.
“A typical manufacturer would look at as many as 10 different applicants before finding someone who had any of those skills,” Vicklund says.
McLaughlin agrees. In the general population, math skills are often lacking, he says. “Many applicants need training in the use of hand tools, safety requirements and understanding the ISO [international standards] and other certifications found in manufacturing.”
Those with a solid background in a more general skill, such as sales or project management, can sometimes transfer those talents into manufacturing. The challenge stems from manufacturing’s unique language, software, design and specialized standards. Even those with a four-year degree may need to return to school for a certification in the aspect of manufacturing they’re interested in pursuing, such as aerospace or clean energy.
Getting up to speed
Manufacturing jobs aren’t limited to making items — those items often need to be serviced post-production. Shoreline Community College offers a program for automotive service technicians, working with manufacturers and auto dealers to fix cars after four wheels hit the road.
Students are sponsored by dealerships, spending an academic quarter at the college’s Professional Automotive Training Center followed by a quarter on the job. “They learn and earn,” says Lee Lambert, president of Shoreline Community College.
Each community college in the region tends to specialize in a few subject areas, he says. The Everett and Edmonds community colleges laser in on aerospace; Shoreline is known for its machining program; and North Seattle offers an electronics technician manufacturing program.
Skills port across subsections of the industry, whether working on planes or at an aluminum smelting plant. “A machinist is a machinist,” says Bredeson.
Putting skills to work
North Star Ice Equipment Corporation in Seattle makes industrial-size icemakers, ice storage and ice-handling systems. The company started out by supplying the U.S.-based seafood industry, but now 70 percent of its business is international, with icemakers installed in Asia and South America.
“Our production employees do not need college degrees, but they need to be skilled,” says Jonathan P. Deex, president and CEO of North Star, describing his 14 shop employees. “We have people running mills and lathes, welding and fitting metal, reading blueprints. There is a fair amount of precision involved along with multitasking, and that’s why they get paid what they do.”
Deex says many of his employees gain experience in other companies, and having a large regional employer such as Boeing helps smaller businesses like his. “We’ve taken advantage of the local manufacturing ecosystem as a smaller company,” he says; for example, hiring a salesperson and an engineer from Paccar, a regional manufacturer of heavy trucks.
He says that to prepare for a production position at a business like his, many of the community colleges offer relevant training programs. “You have to dig a little bit,” but it’s worth it, Deex says. Entry-level production positions at North Star can garner $35,000-$40,000 per year. Mechanical engineers with four-year degrees start at $50,000 per year.
“There are a lot of opportunities in manufacturing with an engineering background, operations or design, or in product development,” he says.
Mechanical aptitude and curiosity are key characteristics for anyone seeking a position at a company such as North Star, Deex says. There’s a certain level of pride that comes from using your mind and hands to create.
He says: “You can look at something at the end of the day and say, ‘I built that.’ ”
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