Steve Shelton leads a tour of the Trade Institute. Courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

Our region’s manufacturing companies are a diverse bunch, producing everything from moon landers to chocolate pretzels. But for many companies, there’s one troubling commonality: They struggle to attract and retain new workers.

It’s a perennial concern for the economic development nonprofit Catalyst Connection, which has produced several reports and initiatives sounding alarms about the region’s ongoing shortage of manufacturing workers.

“Manufacturers are committed to the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, although they are being impacted by the skilled worker shortage,” says the organization’s 2018 study, “with those impacts resulting in increased costs and lower profitability.”

On Tuesday, June 18, Catalyst Connection gathered dozens of manufacturers from across Western Pennsylvania for a tour of 7800 Susquehanna in Homewood, a socially-conscious business hub funded by Bridgeway Capital.

During the tour and discussions with some of the in-house experts, representatives from Mitsubishi, MECCO laser-engraving, Quality Mould machine shop and other organizations learned about innovative approaches to workforce development.

A few highlights from the tour:

The Manufacturing Assistance Center. Courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

Manufacturing Assistance Center (1st floor)

The day started and ended with tours of the Manufacturing Assistance Center (MAC) on the building’s first floor.

Launched in 1994 by Pitt’s Department of Industrial Engineering, MAC is a nonprofit workforce development institute dedicated to preparing workers for the manufacturing industry through courses on precision manufacturing, CNC programming and computer-aided design.

Speaking to the assembled visitors, MAC’s Outreach Manager Claire Guth said the program aims to serve the chronically underserved communities in and around Pitt’s Oakland campus. The resident learners are a mix of high school students, young adults and older workers looking to make a career transition.

“The benefit of our program is the diversity,” said Guth, and it’s a strategy they encourage in partner institutions to embrace as they look to fill our their workforces. “That’s where we’re seeing companies have less problems,” said Guth. “By tapping into more marginalized populations.”

Since setting in up the Susquehanna building in May of 2017, 100 students have graduated from MAC courses, and 95 percent have found jobs shortly thereafter. And this fall, the center will roll out a new partnership with 19 high school and technical training sites across Western Pennsylvania, allowing students to receive certified MAC training in their own communities.

Thread International. Photo by Bill O’Toole.
Thread International. Photo by Bill O’Toole.

Thread (5th floor)

Thread’s products are all made from recycled materials but they built their production team from scratch.

Since moving into 7800 Susquehanna in 2018, the company has hired 12 Homewood residents to join its sewing staff.

According to Chief of Staff Christina Gappy, many had little to no sewing experience at first. But thanks to Thread’s in-house training program, the new employees were ready to design and stitch the company’s signature backpacks within a few months.

Guth, along with the Catalyst Connections representatives in attendance, hailed Thread as a great model for how to build talent in-house.

In addition to hiring in Homewood, Thread has several full-time employees on the ground in Haiti and Honduras to coordinate with local partners. Those staff members employ teams of local residents to collect plastic waste, which is then processed into usable cloth and shipped to the United States.

Though the company still has plenty of backpack orders to fill from their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Gappy said a new product — details are still under wraps — will launch this fall.

TIP Job Developer and Case Manager Donta Green addressing the tour visitors. Courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (3rd floor)

The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh (TIP), offers a 10-week program teaching bricklaying and basic masonry skills, which then gives students an on-ramp for entry-level positions in the city’s booming construction trade.

But the training doesn’t stop there: Trade Institute of Pittsburgh Founder Steve Shelton explains that the students — about 85 percent of whom were previously incarcerated — also develop emotional and interpersonal skills through the program.

The 22 students begin each day with group discussions about their goals and personal lives, and the staff at TIP includes trained life coaches and counselors.

“The cool thing about this place is that we’re meeting people where they are,” says Donta Green, a job developer and case manager at TIP.

Students also take several hours of computer literacy classes and receive a free laptop at the end of the program.

TIP has graduated 600 alumni over the last 10 years, with a job placement rate of 94 percent in roles paying $15 an hour or better.

“Very simply put,” said Shelton. “We put tools in people’s hands and we get them jobs.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.