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Pennsylvania’s manufacturing industry has struggled for decades to compete for high-quality workforce talent. That’s due, in part, to the stigmas associated with the work itself, resulting in fewer people than ever entering the field.
Now, new economic challenges posed by the pandemic are exacerbating already existing recruitment issues.
Those challenges are acutely felt at places like Southco, Inc. in Thornton, Pa.
Southco’s manufacturing facility is like if Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory was designed by Rube Goldberg.
All over the floor, hundreds of hyper-specified manufacturing machines loudly whirr and clank, and perform impressive feats like 3D printing parts that were designed in-house by staff engineers. They also execute seemingly menial tasks, like making sure plastic ends are clipped properly to not damage the whole part.
The global manufacturing giant, headquartered in Delaware County, specializes in latches that can be found almost anywhere: in car glove boxes, overhead storage compartments on planes, and even on 5G telecom towers.
Matthew Hunter, an engineering technician, knows each machine, literally inside and out.
“For any of you who had a hot dog at Wawa, these here are the magnetic latches for the snap on door. So next time you’re in Wawa and you open up the hot dog machine, you’re going to see a magnet in here, and that’s the latch that snaps in the panel there,” Hunter said. “So a lot of stuff you never even notice, we make.”
Hunter has worked pretty much every job there is on the manufacturing floor. He started as an assembly line operator 16 years ago, and steadily worked his way up to his current role designing new machines, and maintaining the ones he used to operate.
Matthew grew up working with his hands in his dad’s auto body shop, and after graduating high school, he spent years working in construction. But after grumbling about the irregular hours and the difficulties finding regular work, a high school friend asked him if he’d ever considered manufacturing.
“I thought manufacturing was like a dirty trade, because it sounds dirty, and I think people have been programmed to think that it’s kind of like mining,” Hunter said, just feet away from the computer where he designs 3D printed parts. “I think if people actually saw what manufacturing was nowadays, they would have a whole different outlook on it. And I think there would be more motivation to go into it.”
While Southco posted one of its most profitable years ever in 2021, CEO Steve Potter worries about the future, as even large companies like his still have trouble recruiting and retaining talent.
“We’re all struggling with the same thing,” Potter said. “It’s this odd dichotomy where we’re all struggling getting human resources, yet our numbers and demand for whatever we do is at an all-time high.”