Wanted: Young recruits to succeed North Jersey’s graying corps of skilled industrial workers.
And there are plenty of opportunities waiting — even as school districts have been phasing out the old shop courses that prepped children for hands-on careers in manufacturing, engineering, and science.
That was the running theme of a tour 75 Clifton middle school and high school students Tuesday at HK Metalcraft Manufacturing Corporation, a metal products manufacturer in Lodi.
The teens, hand picked from the schools’ drafting and auto technology classes, were introduced to the world of manufacturing, engineering, and science and the jobs they offer.
Plant managers said that New Jersey’s manufacturers are crying out for new blood. But although well-paying jobs at manufacturing plants are plentiful, there is a dearth of young people is willing to fill them, said Raymond Hopp, president and CEO of HM Metalcraft, a 50-year-old company that manufactures high precision metal stampings, springs, gaskets, washers and other specialty metal materials.
For instance, there’s a tremendous need for tool-and-die makers, machinists and technicians, but few takers. And Hopp is worried about the future.
“Eighty-two percent of our workforce is 52 and older, and they’ll be retiring in the next ten years. If we don’t replace them, we will go out of business,” he said.
Hopp added that he hopes other schools take notice of Clifton’s visit and follow its lead. He has already contacted several other school districts to urge their students to tour his plant and learn about opportunities in manufacturing.
“These are good paying jobs, but nobody knows about them,” he said, noting that a pressman may start out earning $30,000 but can work up to a management position, which earns more than $100,000.
Because many high schools have eliminated shop class and other such courses that would lead into a job in manufacturing, HM Metalcraft and other places like it will have to develop an apprenticeship program to train employees on the job.
“There’s not enough of these courses being taught in the schools,” said Ed Dipetrillo, a plant manager who led part of the groups on the tour to show students the machines used to make various metal parts. “It’s not good for the country.”
Mike Paitchell, a Clifton school trustee who was a main organizer of the trip, said he’s made it his mission to expose students to jobs in science, technology and manufacturing.
“Schools used to teach home economics and shop,” he said. “They don’t have that anymore. We need to bring back basic skills that people need for life. Kids don’t even know which end of a screw driver to pick up anymore.”
The factory employees were impressed by the contingent of students, who asked questions about how the machines used to make precision tools and dies work, how long it takes to produce products, and what makes the press go up and down.
“They are inquiring; they are very polite and attentive,” observed Dipetrillo — adding that the fact that they weren’t texting or playing with their cell phones was a positive sign.
Some of the students said they were impressed in return by what they saw.
Sophomore Michael Afonso, 17, said he liked seeing how everything was made — “You don’t get to see stuff like this in school,” he mused. “I’d consider a job with them.”
But Summer Madkour, an 8th grader was not as moved, saying “I think I want to go to college and study chemistry.”
Francisca Sanchez, 17, a junior who is interested in engineering, said, “This was very cool. Some of what we saw is a lot like what we do in school on our computers when we design things.”
Such comments were music to the ears of Robert Loderstedt, president of New Jersey Manufacturing, an organization that helps manufacturers become more productive. Loderstedt said it’s crucial to let teenagers see that there are challenging careers available in the manufacturing industry.
“In northern New Jersey, there are several hundred jobs sitting vacant in arenas like machine operators, machinists, as well as tool-and-die makers. These are critical folks in the manufacturing arena, and it requires a solid high school education and additional training,” he said. “We’ve either got to find people to fill the jobs or the manufacturers will look outside of New Jersey.”
Among the most important lessons of the day was that provided by Norm Zelinsky, an engineering manager at the plant, who told the students, “I have worked in this business for 33 years, and I love coming to work. When you find something you love, stick with it.”