‘It's as though 2009 never happened;’ scramble to hire

[caption id="attachment_23709" align="alignright" width="288" caption="As high-tech manufacturing surges back, Icore International is building the junction box that controls all aspects of landing for a major new U.S. airplane."][/caption]

NORTH BAY – North Bay high-tech manufacturers are reporting a surge in orders, and companies that cut staff during the last couple of years are scrambling to get back up to speed by rehiring.

Electronics component maker Schurter USA said that sales ending in July saw a more than 50 percent jump compared to last year.

"It's as though 2009 never happened," said Schurter USA Vice President of Marketing Diane Cupples.

The company is seeing major growth in the medical and renewable energy industries, with "significant organic growth" from the solar market.

"Sales are up in Mexico, and our Asian hub is having its best year ever, largely because of transferred manufacturing from U.S. telecom companies, also an indication of worldwide strengthening in the technology industry," she said.

The uptick is affecting both large and small companies, as extra work coming to giants like Agilent and JDS Uniphase gets outsourced to smaller shops.

"We're absolutely seeing at least 30 percent growth in both our domestic and overseas markets," said Barbara Roberts, CEO of 50-employee Wright Engineered Products in Santa Rosa, a provider of plastic injection molding.

"All our customers are doing better, and projects they put on hold are now funded and operating."

Ms. Roberts said her customers include JDSU, which late last year announced an agreement to supply solutions for Dolby 3D Digital Cinema systems.

Aerospace industry supplier Icore International is also farming out work to qualified local shops.

"Credit markets are back, and the airline industry, after experiencing the worst combination of troughs it's ever seen, is turning the corner," said Icore CEO Ted Perdue. His team, recently grown 40 percent to 200 employees, is working at capacity to fill orders for major airplane components, he said.

For small companies that downsized and went dormant during the worst of the economic storm, the sudden turnaround presents some challenges.

"It's a challenge to respond to the demand," said Grant Kerr, owner of five-employee G-Man Precision Machining in Santa Rosa.

"Our customers are winning government contracts, the health and screening industries are up, and even companies with in-house manufacturing are looking to outsource. I'm hiring and wishing it wasn’t so difficult to find trained precision machinists," said Mr. Kerr.

So does Mike Maendl, founder and president of 17-employee Protofab, a Petaluma maker of medical devices and high-tech machine components, who'd like to see his operation running 24/7.

"Our business is up 15 to 20 percent, and I just hired some former Agilent people to handle the increased orders," he said.

Protofab is starting to become competitive with Indonesia on prices by using skilled workers operating highly automated machines. With his company's ISO and U.S. medical device certifications in place, he hopes the resurgent manufacturing industry will bring him clients who now outsource to Asia, he said.

Industrial food processing equipment maker Blentech Corp. in Santa Rosa had scaled back its operations when March and April brought such a deluge of orders from the U.S. and abroad that it needed to double its shop staff.

"It was as though a floodgate of backlogged opportunities opened. It was an unexpected surge," said Daniel Voit, owner of the 45-employee company.

Things have quieted down since then, he said, but the growth continues.

Ms. Cupples of Schurter recommended a cautious outlook.

"All cylinders [of the economy] are not yet operational, with the housing market and unemployment continuing to loom," said Ms. Cupples.

"But we feel the tech sector will continue to see a strong recovery. For Schurter, there has yet to be an indication of a leveling off or slowdown anytime soon."

There will be a leveling off, she said, and for many sectors a slow recovery.

"But so far [the upturn] has translated into mid-year employee bonuses as well as temporary hiring, both of which contribute to the local economy in the North Bay," she said.