Even with the economy looking up, executives at Alle-Kiski Industries worry that 10 years down the line they may face another problem entirely: a shortage of workers.
Tucked away in Leechburg, Alle-Kiski Industries is a thriving machining and fabrication shop that shows a revival in manufacturing since the financial downturn and a success story for the Small Business Administration, which has provided numerous loans to the company. But though those SBA loans have helped pay equipment and other costs, the company's owners say they do not know where the future of manufacturing in Western Pennsylvania is headed as the majority of today's youth shy away from vocational training.
"They are continuously growing, but they're concerned that at some point they are not going to get the next level of employees as their staff is retiring," said Angel Marschik, vice president and senior loan officer for Bridgeway Capital, which helped to fund Alle-Kiski Industries.
The company has indeed grown since co-owners Ed Newell and Kevin Hartford -- who met on the sports field at their sons' football games -- acquired Gentile Manufacturing in 2005.
Mr. Newell and Mr. Hartford purchased a struggling plant with $800,000 in sales and six employees, but quickly revitalized the business as Alle-Kiski Industries. They had 24 employees by the end of their first year and made $2.8 million in sales during 2006.
Today, Alle-Kiski Industries has 32 employees and customers that include GE Transportation and Alcoa. The first quarter of 2011 was the company's strongest ever, Mr. Hartford said.
Alle-Kiski Industries is a crucial link in larger supply chains and part of America's "manufacturing heritage," Small Business Administrator Karen Mills said. The company does not use assembly lines and makes custom pieces for customers, such as a specialized exhaust pipe for GE locomotives.
"What we've seen all across the country is that, after a decline, manufacturing has come back," Ms. Mills said Tuesday as she toured Alle-Kiski Industries. "We know they've got the capability ... in this region, where they can do this kind of manufacturing. We just need to make sure they have the money and the equipment."
Ron Smith, production manager at Alle-Kiski Industries, said manufacturing had "definitely" seen an upturn since the recession, adding that the entire valley seemed to be "on the upswing."
But even with the resurgence that Ms. Mills and members of Alle-Kiski Industries say manufacturing has witnessed, Mr. Newell said the industry had been hurt by a lack of people attending career and technical schools.
"You cannot get any young people out here, and the biggest problem is that the home schools are not sending any kids to vocational schools, so all the trades are suffering," Mr. Newell said.
Still, Alle-Kiski Industries and others are taking steps to combat the dearth of young employees.
Ms. Mills said the SBA partners with Skills for America's Future, a federal program launched in October and dedicated to bettering industry relationships with community colleges. Alle-Kiski Industries has its own apprentice program, which Mr. Newell said currently has two participants.
One of those participants, Travis Shellhammer, joined Alle-Kiski Industries after graduating from high school this spring. He said his high school did not provide much information about manufacturing jobs and instead "kind of kept it hidden."
Ms. Marschik said jobs like those at Alle-Kiski Industries should be desirable to young people, with starting hourly wages of $17 to $18. Employee benefits include health care, disability and life insurance, Ms. Mills said.
"We've got to make sure young people know that a manufacturing job is a great job, a well paying job and a job for the future," Ms. Mills said.
The question of where the next generation of manufacturing employees will come from seems particularly relevant with President Barack Obama set to discuss manufacturing jobs and economic innovation at Carnegie Mellon University on Friday. The president's remarks will touch on "traditional American manufacturers in the heartland" such as those at Alle-Kiski Industries, Ms. Mills said.
Small Business Administrator Karen Mills tours Alle-Kiski Industries in Leechburg.
Alison Griswold: email@example.com or 412-263-1410.