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Outlook may be improving for machine shops

Skilled machinists soon will be in demand again, the program coordinator at Monroe Community College’s Applied Technology Center predicts. 

Robert Lasch said the college’s tooling and machining program this fall is looking at its highest full-time enrollment in 10 years and is up 50 percent from a year ago. He expects some 50 students to be enrolled in this fall’s semester, on track to receive either a certificate or two-year degree. 

The majority of day classes are full and four have been added to accommodate more students, many of whom are displaced employees funded by grant money from sources including the federal stimulus package. 

There is ample space in the night classes, which start a week after the day classes begin during the week of Sept. 14, Lasch said. 

The fall numbers follow higher enrollment in the spring and summer sessions, he said. Spring enrollment of 36 students was double the previous year’s, and the summer session, which usually is minimally attended, had two sessions totaling 30 students. 

While 60 percent of those enrolled this fall are fresh from high school, Lasch said, an increasing number are students 40 or older who are taking a class or two to learn a new skill, hoping to get a competitive advantage for when job openings occur. 

"Now is a good time to be in school," he said. 

A course in Mastercam software, for example, has been popular because the software is used extensively by local firms, Lasch noted. 

While the economic environment remains tough for local machine shops, Lasch said, the outlook appears to be improving. He said employees at a number of firms are again working 40 hours a week after reductions in hours that were made to trim costs and respond to a lack of work. 

"People are getting more optimistic," Lasch said. 

However, current conditions still contrast starkly with those of a year ago, when Lasch saw four local job openings for each graduate. He expects machining to remain an employable trade, rebounding in a year or two, because of an aging work force and the number of established precision machining and manufacturing companies. 

Kevin Kelley, executive director of the Rochester Tooling and Machining Association, describes the local manufacturing climate as OK. Some firms are doing well because of a varied customer mix, while others are seeking new customers to offset downturns in business from their traditional customer base. Other firms continue to struggle, he said. 

Kelley’s organization is taking steps to help. The group has brought to town original equipment manufacturers such as Northrup Grumman Corp. and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. to meet with local companies and learn about their capabilities in hopes of getting work. 

In October, the RTMA will provide some financial assistance for 24 member companies to attend a business event sponsored by the National Tooling and Machining Association in Indiana that connects firms with OEM customers. Kelley said the event in the past has been valuable for local firms, noting that most get leads on jobs and one-third end up with contracts. 

"I’m hopeful the economy will continue to move upward, and implications for this sector show it is coming sooner rather than later," he said.  

A recent survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that manufacturing conditions in the state had improved for the first time in more than a year. 

The Empire State Manufacturing Survey indicated that the general business index increased 13 points to 12.1 in August, its highest level since November 2007. Some 30 percent of respondents said conditions had improved over the month, while 18 percent said conditions had deteriorated. 

Future indicators looked promising as well. 

According to the state survey, the future general business conditions index advanced 14 points to 48.2, with 62 percent of respondents expecting conditions to be better in six months. Future employment indexes were positive and higher than in July, suggesting that employment is expected to rise. 

Some local manufacturers are growing despite the recession. Last month, American Packaging Corp. was awarded a $150,000 grant from Empire State Development Corp. to cover part of an $11.4 million construction project and purchase new equipment. 

The company produces flexible packaging for food, personal care and other projects. The firm decided to modernize its local plant because of growing demand for greener packaging. 

American Packaging recently built a 15,000-square-foot addition and installed machinery that allows for an additional production line. The company-which ranked 38th on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of manufacturers-said it will retain 147 jobs and create 25. 

Also in August, R. Brooks Associates Inc. in Williamson unveiled its 11,040-square-foot field service and training center, which is the first facility expansion for the firm in its 25-year history. The Wayne County firm engineers, designs and manufactures remote and robotic tooling for the nuclear power industry. 

In addition to training, the new facility will be used for testing Brooks Associates’ custom inspection tooling and robotics and precision laser scanning. 

The $2.4 million expansion project is expected to add 15 jobs to the existing 72, the Wayne County Economic Development Office said. 

Brooks Associates received a $300,000 low-interest loan for the project from the agency’s revolving loan fund. 

"We’re pleased they have chosen to continue their growth here in Wayne County, even in what are recognized as challenging economic times globally," said Margaret Churchill, the agency’s executive director. 

adeckert@rbj.net / 585-546-8303


09/04/09 (C) Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303.

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