Sunday June 23, 2013

When Dave Hallet makes his morning rounds at Crane in Dalton he is continuing a tradition that goes back more than 200 years.

He may begin his rounds at the paper manufacturer by checking his e-mail and reports on a computer, but then he walks around to learn what happened during the night. He may use technological procedures like "machine vision," a name that is used to describe image-based inspection. But Hallet's mission is the same one company founder Zenas Crane had when he made the paper himself in the early 19th century: a focus on making a quality product.

Jobs like Hallet's exist here in the Berkshires, and several local organizations are working to ensure they remain here in the future.

"We are working on getting the message out that there are jobs in manufacturing and there are great jobs," said Barbara Chaput, Crane's human resources' director. "Bigger companies left the area, but you do not have to go away to find this work."

Professionals from various local organizations are addressing these workforce issues, she said.

"I think the right parties are at the table."

Hallet originally attended Indiana State University, but left after two years to join the Navy, which is where he learned electronics. He married a Pittsfield native, then moved to the Berkshires in 1986.

He started at Crane as an electronic technician, became the group leader for his shop, went on to become a systems specialist, and then a full engineer. He took classes, many in-house, and two years ago was promoted to full engineer. Now when Crane installs a new machine, Hallet collaborates with different departments to make it work. He might bring in vendors if the company is looking for a new inspection system.

Some 20 years before Hallet came to the Berkshires, John Tatro left the Navy where he had been trained as an electronics technician, working on the navigation equipment of nuclear submarines in Scotland.

Returning to Pittsfield in 1964, Tatro took a job spiking tracks for the railroad because he found "a recession (and) no jobs."

But Tatro soon found employment as an electronic technician at General Electric where he worked on the fire control equipment for the Polaris submarine, and the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

His boss, Nicholas Delgrecco, noticed that Tatro had the ability to go farther. Noting the discrepancy in pay between what Tatro was making and what young engineers could earn, Delgrecco, suggested that he go back to school.

"So I started at BCC nights," Tatro said.

Tatro earned an associate degree in six years, and his bachelor's degree four years after that. By this time he was married and had three children. He stayed with the company after GE sold his division to Martin Marrieta and the firm was successively purchased by Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. At General Dynamics, Tatro became technical director of power and motion control positions/platforms.

Delgrecco, meanwhile, had left to teach and in 2002 lured Tatro to BCC where he started as an adjunct professor of engineering. Tatro then accepted a full-time appointment to assistant professor of engineering technology and became program advisor for advanced manufacturing technology at BCC. He's currently awaiting the arrival of a mini-computer integrated manufacturing system that is slated to be purchased with a federal grant, that will allow the college to provide state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing training tools.

It's not just nostalgia that creates the desire for a significant manufacturing presence in today's economy. In an op-ed published in 2011 by The New York Times, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield stated that manufacturers conduct 70 percent of the private sector research and development, and employ 64 percent of the nation's scientists and engineers. But Hockfield stated "that factories abroad attract design and engineering talent."

"Over time, manufacturing off shore leads to innovation off shore," Hockfield wrote.

Manufacturing also provides "direct linkages to high level service jobs throughout the economy," a report by Michael Ettinger and Kate Gordon of the Center for American Progress found.

Massachusetts companies cannot compete with firms who make commodity products with subsidized offshore production, Chaput said. But where the state can compete is in the making of specialty, or niche, products.

"We have an extremely nimble group here," Chaput said.

There are currently 4,724 jobs at 167 manufacturers in Berkshire County, said Heather Boulger, the Executive Director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. But baby boomers are retiring, and with them go years of experience and knowledge. Right now, Boulger said, her organization is working on ways to deal with the shortfall.

According to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, machinists, engineering technicians and assemblers are in demand.

"We have an older, very skilled workforce, and many within five to seven years of retirement, so the degree of turnover is something we are trying to get our hands around," said Arthur Sander, the director of operations for Crane's U.S. Government Products.

Dave Pedrotti, the president/owner of Modern Mold & Tool in Pittsfield, currently has five open positions that he cannot fill. His company, founded by Pedrotti's father in 1952, does mold making and plastic injection molding. Modern Mold has 65 employees, and both entry level and highly skilled jobs. The company makes "everything medical you can think of," according to Pedrotti, from airway breathing devices, to intravenous tubing connectors, as well as products for aerospace, automotive and sports equipment industries.

Job training in high schools is missing link in workforce training efforts today, said William Mulholland, BCC's Vice President for Community Education and Workforce Development.

"We don't have enough people in voc. tech." he said.

Pedrotti agrees: "The technical training is not there. That is where the community colleges can really help."

"People are not promoting these careers," said Lou Gaviglia, vice president of manufacturing program initiatives for MassDevelopment, referring to parents and guidance counselors. "These jobs pay well, and they provide a career."