Access to engineering, high-school-grad tech talent remain challenges

[caption id="attachment_36587" align="alignleft" width="302" caption="Joe Adam, Dick Herman"][/caption]

NORTH BAY -- With more than 300 manufacturers in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano Counties, this industry is a vital part of the region’s economic health, according to Dick Herman, president of 101MFG, a private alliance of manufacturers throughout Northern California.

“Over the next three years we want the highway 101 innovation corridor to become California’s next great manufacturing center,” he said.

Virtually all of these firms are privately held, and most report that they are seeing gains representing 15 to 50 percent growth over the prior year.

The North Bay Business Journal has selected 13 companies for its first Top Manufacturers Awards honoring outstanding companies in the North Bay.

SRC Cables — Quality

BioMarin Pharmaceutical — Education

Raydiance — Innovation-Technology

Clear Focus Imaging — Innovation–Nontechnology

Architectural Plastics — Customer Service

Liberty Valley Doors — Community

Datum Technologies — Culture

DJ Grey Company — Supplier

Wright Engineered Plastics — Environment

Enphase Energy — Leadership

Labcon North America — Growth-Technology

Lagunitas Brewing Company — Growth-Food & Beverage

Special Award — La Tortilla Factory

Today, North Bay manufacturers account for 10 percent of all jobs in the area and generate 20 percent of local GDP. This represents almost $5 billion worth of manufacturing output in the four counties, not including wineries.

The North Bay manufacturing workforce includes 18,000 jobs, and averages $232,100 worth of output per employee -- and with wages and salaries higher than most other industries.

Growth in manufacturing also drives the expansion of non-manufacturing employment -- within some industries like semiconductor and computer equipment -- creating as many as three to seven more supporting jobs.

“North Bay firms are mainstream producers of millions of finished goods, as well as parts and components made here in the U.S., but we depend upon a highly-skilled, professional workforce,” Mr. Herman said.

In a study of high school sophomores in California, researchers found that of every 10 students, only two complete a four-year college degree program.

According to Mr. Herman, young people should consider all their options while still in high school. He said today a youth with a GED can earn $45,000 a year or more with technical or vocational training, several years of on-the-job training or with an appropriate technical apprenticeship.

“Despite these statistics, leaders continue to make educational policy based on the assumption that everyone will complete a four-year college curriculum. While a solid four-year engineering degree and relevant experience at a recognized national level are desirable, other options are open and potentially lucrative in this field for young people who are willing to learn a trade and have the requisite math, science and mechanical aptitude.”

The ability to hire local, qualified employees is a widespread concern. In a survey conducted across the nine Bay Area counties by 101MFG, nearly 60 percent said they plan to hire within the region if they could find candidates with skills they need.

Twenty-seven 101MFG firms have reported that they expect to have a total of 190 position openings in the next four to five months, however, 142 of these jobs call for production or engineering skills.

A national poll showed that 30 to 40 percent of manufacturing firms plan to hire during the next three years in anticipation of renewed growth.

“One way to bridge this divide is by having students shadow workers in a variety of manufacturing firms to see what they do and what workers need to know to qualify.  This Fall we plan to launch ‘100MFG Sponsors in 100 Days’ -- a program designed to do just that,” Mr. Herman said.

The goal is to give manufacturers a chance to observe and get to know these young people. As students enter a four-year apprenticeship or pursue higher education, these employers will be aware of who is coming up through the pipeline and hopefully improve the next generation’s understanding of these lucrative jobs.

Mr. Herman admits that while labor costs in the North Bay may be higher than in other parts of the nation, the total “landed” cost may actually be lower in some cases.

If products can be mass-produced through automation, manufacturing can come back onshore as well as from other states and bolster our area, he said.

“To grow, we need engineering expertise for prototyping, processing, fabrication and other aspects of manufacturing. These capabilities exist here today, but we have not quite reached critical mass in all required core disciplines.  Still, we can leverage the world class expertise we do possess and use it to build, expand and attract additional leading firms.”

Mr. Herman cited just a few examples of North Bay manufacturers who are thriving.

HydroFarm West is part of a nationwide enterprise with an estimated value of $300 million. It is nation's oldest and largest manufacturer of hydroponics equipment and grow lights with a catalog listing 3,000 items.

Labcon North America, Inc., produces 4 million products a day -- including pipet tips, aerosol filter tips as well as culture and centrifuge tubes along with other products. The firm has grown 25 percent in one year and is the leader and innovator of “Earth-Friendly” low environmental impact technologies in the laboratory supplies market.

SRC Cables, Inc., makes flexible and semi rigid coax cable assemblies as well as microwave absorbers for wireless communications. The firm has grown 50 percent in one year and is reaping the reward of an investment made to re-engineer the business with quality improvements at every stage.

Raydiance, Inc., is a leading developer of ultra fast lasers that pulse at a rate of one trillionth of a second used in the production of medical stents, photolithography, and high-precision laser applications for industry.

Enphase Energy increases the output harvested from solar panels by up to 25 percent. The company has built a world-class management team and produces low cost micro inverters that efficiently convert DC to AC current on each panel. In just five years the company has gone from startup to the world’s leading producer.

Triformix, Inc., CEO Joe Adam says his firm is on course for 30 percent growth in 2011.

Triformix designs, engineers and manufactures passive components for fiber optic communications and interconnects. The firm also makes disposable lens assemblies for endoscopic surgery cameras as well as systems to meet the instrumentation needs of the bar code, security, and defense industries.

As pioneers in polymer optics, the Triformix team led the development of high-volume, high-precision optics for early office automation products. Today, the firm’s technology is the standard for products such as printer sensors, motion sensors, optical mice and fiber optic connectors.

With over 200 million mice optics shipped in hundreds of product forms, Triformix developed, and is now extending its capability to support the rapid development of high-speed optical communications in the consumer market associated with HD TV content on the Internet.

“But the real challenge for us is finding competent employees in Sonoma County. We need to build a local talent pool and develop a sustainable model that can weather through bad times and good,” Mr. Adam said.

“We currently have 30 employees and four openings. Our headcount is up 15 percent and the company recently hired an intern from Chico State University.  But we need to do more by reaching out to high school students to give them advance visibility to the world of work so they can prepare to fill these positions.”

Triformix builds its products in China and the U.S.

Mr. Adam said 20 percent of the youth in China prepare to enter technical fields, compared with only five percent of young people in the states.

Mr. Adam believes that programs such as the Jobs and Prosperity Project and BEST (Building Economic Success Together), a new economic public and private partnership established by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, are a good start. BEST has set a goal of creating 4,100 jobs by 2016, and 101MFG will be a key partner in that effort.

“We all have to work together, collaborate and support efforts to expand the local labor pool, and not just focus on our own insular needs, if the North Bay is going to expand and grow,” Mr. Adam said.