Ted Toth is the third generation of his family to run a small precision-manufacturing company in Pennsauken, N.J., located in a working class suburb east of Philadelphia. The Toth company was recently purchased by a larger company called Rosenberger and is now called Rosenberger-Toth, but Ted Toth is still vice president and managing director, which means that the problems of running a plant fall to him. The company makes antennae parts for global-positioning-system satellites and sells them to Lockheed Martin. With 35 employees, Rosenberger-Toth does about $6 million a year in sales.
It’s highly precise work because the satellites are positioned 200 miles above the earth’s surface and can never be repaired. Their antennae either work perfectly or they don’t work at all. Forget about tolerances measured in millimeters. These devices have tolerances within a nanometer.
The problem is that it takes more computerized machines and related software to make the antennae parts; and therefore, it takes more sophisticated operators to run the machines—who are increasingly difficult to find. “That’s the trouble with the skills gap,” says Toth. “The technology is growing at [such] a [fast] pace that the training can’t keep up with it. Instead of blue collar workers, who work with their hands and backs on a production line, we now need ‘blue-tech’ workers who use their heads and use technology like computerized machines and robots.”
Toth will need to hire several new workers in coming months, but schools in the area are not developing enough candidates for him. The company hosts a “Manufacturing Day” each October for students from the Pennsauken High School that does attract job seekers—but they are not yet ready to operate the machines immediately after graduating. Toth, who made one entry-level hire recently from Camden County Community College, says he finds that community colleges in his area don’t have high enough graduation rates and don’t train on the latest equipment. “It’s going to be difficult to find the people,” he says. “We currently have to steal them from other shops.”
Toth knows whereof he speaks partly because he is the new chairman of the board of the National Tooling and Machining Association, which has 1,400 members with an average of 30 workers. They are thus one of the backbones of the industrial economy and all of them have the same problem of finding workers. “The image of industry is one of the biggest problems we have,” he adds. “Most people think of manufacturers as having smokestacks and dark, dirty and dangerous environments. We’re very clean, modern and computerized. But kids see the images in movies and don’t want to get their hands dirty.”