Driving to work one day during the recent recession, Kennametal's chairman, president and CEO, Carlos Cardoso, got to thinking about Philip McKenna, the founder of the Latrobe-area tool producer.
Mr. McKenna, a metallurgist, developed a tungsten-titanium carbide alloy that boosted the productivity of manufacturers that used cutting tools. His research led to the founding of McKenna Metals in 1938. The company employed 12. Today, that company is Kennametal, with annual sales of $2.6 billion and about 14,000 employees.
"We need to find a way where we can find the next Philip McKenna" was the lesson Mr. Cardoso took away from his morning commute.
The outgrowth of his epiphany is a program designed to inspire high school students to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering.
Since Kennametal's Young Engineers initiative was started in 2011, about 120 students have participated in the semester-long program. Most of them attended Greater Latrobe Senior High School, but the company recently expanded the program to Solon High School in suburban Cleveland, which is located near one of Kennametal's plants.
The program is one effort that the manufacturing industry is making to address a looming problem: the impending retirement of its aging workforce. Mr. Cardoso said about 2.7 million manufacturing workers are expected to retire over the next decade.
The question is: Who will replace them?
Despite its transformation into a high-tech enterprise that requires highly skilled workers who are paid middle-class wages and salaries to operate and maintain sophisticated equipment, many still think of manufacturing as a less-than-desirable career. Massive layoffs and factories sent overseas over the last few decades have cemented those perceptions.
Even before the worst of the retirement crunch hits and at a time of chronic underemployment, manufacturers are already reporting having problems finding skilled workers. A 2011 study by the research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers reported that as many as 600,000 jobs went unfilled because manufacturers could not find people with the necessary skills.
"Someone told me they couldn't take a million-dollar order because they didn't have the people to handle it," said Jeannine Kunz, who is in charge of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' work force and education initiative.
Ms. Kunz said 90 percent of the companies surveyed by the engineers group reported problems filling positions that required skilled workers. More than half cited the skills gap as the biggest reason they could not grow their business, she said.
"Because manufacturers had a really tough time for a while, people may have gone elsewhere," said Allison Grealis, director of Women in Manufacturing, a trade group dedicated to the advancement of women in the industry.
Ms. Grealis said the industry faces the big challenge of changing perceptions of manufacturing even if statistics show it can be a great career.
The selling points include higher pay. Ms. Grealis said the average U.S. manufacturing job pays $66,000. According to Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps manufacturers, the average manufacturing job in the region paid $57,194 in 2012, 17 percent more than the average job.
Oberg Industries, a Buffalo Township company that produces machined and stamped metal parts, has tackled the retirement wave by maintaining a strong apprenticeship program. As a result, the average age of its workforce is in the late 30s, according to president and CEO David Bonvenuto. More than 40 employees are in the program currently, he said.
"We've stayed very disciplined. Even in times of a downturn or recessionary impact, that was an area we never cut back," he said of the company's apprenticeship program.
Mr. Cardoso said one problem has been high school counselors who do not know enough about manufacturing and engineering and therefore do not offer it as a career choice to students. Most parents feel the same way, he said.
"With no exception, in every class the kids really came in with a misconception of what manufacturing was, what engineering was," Mr. Cardoso said.
Kennametal's Young Engineers program is slowly changing their views. Students are exposed to every aspect of the company's operations. They also take part in community service programs that are part of the company's culture, Mr. Cardoso said.
"I go out of my way to talk to the parents and the parents are actually amazed at the end of the program," he said. "A lot of these kids come back to internship programs with us."
One solution to the retirement crisis that Ms. Grealis' organization and others are pursuing is attracting more women to the industry. Although women make up nearly half of the nation's workforce, they represented only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce in 2013, according to a congressional report. That's the lowest women participation rate in the industry since 1971, according to the report.
"Manufacturing is not portrayed as a sexy, feminine thing to do," said Judy Wojanis, president of Wojanis Supply.
The North Fayette company sells and services fluid power equipment. Ms. Wojanis took over the business when her husband died of a heart attack in 2004.
If there's any hope of replacing manufacturing workers who are going to retire in the coming years, schools must do a better job of preparing students for the jobs and the industry must do a better job of promoting itself, she said. That includes attracting more women.
"There aren't enough men to keep this moving forward. Without women entering the industry, it's going to fall flat on its face," Ms. Wojanis said.
— Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941.
First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM