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Pennsylvania manufacturer thrives -- if only it can find good workers

Salena Zito on

ERIE, Pennsylvania -- The instant you walk into the 750,000-square-foot PHB Industries tool and die plant, your senses are engulfed by the smells, buzzes and hums of machines and people making things. Instantly you are aware you are in a place where man, woman, technology, natural resources and robotics all collaborate for a multitude of product creation and assembly.

Aluminum die-casting; zinc die-casting; and machines of every size, shape and capability are everywhere, some run by a computer, some giving off thousands of degrees of heat and some guided by skilled workers.

The plant serves a multitude of markets that include household and industrial plastics, appliances, electronics, telecommunications, medical equipment, industrial equipment, and aerospace and defense industries.

Their customers are here in the United States and as far away as India and China.

If you are looking for a place that makes things, that allows you to buy American in a place that is hiring Americans, look no further than here. The family-oriented business is owned by John Hilbert, CEO of PHB, and his brother, William Hilbert Jr., the CEO of sister company Reddog Industries.

If you are looking for a place that has low turnover and is eager and aggressively looking to persuade young people to become skilled workers and invest in their future, this is also it.

 

PHB employs 500 and Reddog 60. John Hilbert said their biggest problem is not production but "finding people."

He explained: "Overall, we've come through the whole COVID thing. April (and) part of March were the worst in the company's history, as I'm sure that's no surprise, but we've rebounded. Our customers have come back pretty strong. Beginning the first part of June, we've been running six days a week. But our skilled labor has been an issue for years and years. Getting our society in general to appreciate the fact that we need skilled labor and that trades are not a dirty word has been an uphill battle."

Forty years ago, when manufacturing started to decline, teaching trades in high school became passe, and society decided in response that everyone had to go to college. Parents felt pressured, and students felt pressured, even when neither necessarily thought it was a good fit for themselves or their pocketbooks.

"Everybody doesn't have to go to college," said Hilbert. "You've heard this, and we've spent -- my brother and a couple of other folks -- have spent a tremendous amount of time pounding that home."

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