Innovation Technology Machinery VP of Operations John Dewey. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Innovation Technology Machinery VP of Operations John Dewey. Photo by Andrew Moore.

Historically speaking, manufacturing jobs don’t have the best reputation. What was once a dirty, dangerous, and simple profession has now stepped into the 21st century with new technology and new problems.

John Dewey has served as the VP of Operations of Innovation Technology Machinery on the Northeast side of the city for the last 14 years. Like many local manufacturers, Dewey’s factory now has high-tech equipment that requires employees with mathematical skills, technical knowledge, and training.

“Manufacturing is changing in the context of what kinds of things manufacturing is doing today and the skill sets that are required to do it,” Dewey said. “Levi Strauss used to be here off of Hwy. 90. That was pure labor … you can pull anybody in off the street, sit them down, spend 30 minutes with them to show them the job, and pay a wage commensurate with that skill set. Those jobs disappeared. What you see now are the high-tech jobs.”

An ITM employee creates a 3-D simulation of the cutting process before execution
An ITM employee creates a 3-D simulation of the cutting process before execution. Photo by Andrew Moore.

But while the skill set, training requirements, and pay have increased for manufacturing jobs, a negative stigma remains. ITM and other operations such as Cox Manufacturing Co. can’t find enough entry level machinists or production assembly technicians to fill job vacancies, despite the fact that such entry level positions are full time and start at $11 an hour.

To address this need, the San Antonio Manufacturing Association, or SAMA, created the A TEAM – an initiative designed to both change the public perception of manufacturing and find a way to connect San Antonians with manufacturing jobs. Last week the A TEAM hosted a three-day program where manufacturing leaders met with 20 San Antonio educators to discuss student opportunities in the manufacturing field. The San Antonio educators – who represented local middle schools and high schools – participated in a town hall meeting, toured several manufacturing facilities, and worked on possible curriculum materials to prepare students for manufacturing jobs.

“We’re having them come in and develop lessons, and from this group of 20 teachers we could see 100 to 150 kids go through lessons that are built around manufacturing problems. So they are learning skills that you would encounter on the job,” A TEAM Executive Director Aaron Smith said. “That’s what’s so big about bringing them out to the facilities. When they put together lessons, they are trying to solve real-world problems.”

Educators toured ITM to learn about new manufacturing jobs and technologies
Educators tour ITM to learn about new manufacturing jobs and technologies in San Antonio. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The educators toured facilities owned by Caterpillar, ITM, and Kiolbassa. Many seemed very receptive to manufacturing opportunities, including Daniel Viera, who will begin teaching at Martin Luther King Academy next week.

“We wanted to open kids’ eyes to what’s out there,” Viera said. “Not everything is all about college, but it is about learning … I want them to be interested in learning and what skills they will need to know. By knowing what the manufacturers need, I can relay that back to students in case they want to go that route.”

Kids who do go that route will have to learn algebra and basic math skills, have good interpersonal communications, stay away from drugs, and go through some form of a manufacturing training course during or after high school. Those who meet the requirements, however, will see greater earning potential in manufacturing than entry-level fast food or retail jobs.

Entry level machinists start at $11 an hour. Math skills are required to read part specifications.
Entry level machinists start at $11 an hour. Math skills are required to read part specifications. Photo by Andrew Moore.

An entry level machinist at ITM or COX can start around $11 an hour, and after a year or two that can bump up to $14 or $16. Manufacturing at Caterpillar Inc. starts at $10.25 an hour. After going through special schooling, a journeyman machinist can make $22 or $24 an hour, though there are numerous other specializations in the industry – CNC Operators, Chemical Technicians, Aircraft Mechanics – that can earn somewhere in between. There are still jobs at $7.50, only slightly above minimum wage, but according to Smith, such jobs are the exception rather than the rule.

“There are a lot of $11 an hour jobs out there today,” Smith said. “As you stay there, you progress up the chain. For (Caterpillar Inc.) you can get to assembler or team lead in internal promotion…when you get to the management level, you start to compete with folks who are coming out of college with a bachelor’s degree as a mechanical engineer.”

If kids who work for a manufacturer still want to go to college, some companies will pay for education. Both ITM and Cox Manufacturing Co. will pay for college courses in a job-related field – engineering, for example – as long as the employee achieves a certain benchmark such as a 3.0 grade point average or better. According to the A TEAM, employees who gain a bachelor’s degree in engineering earn around $37 an hour.

Also contributing to starting pay, and offered benefits, is the manufacturer’s need to stay competitive in a large market. According to SAMA’s San Antonio manufacturing Economic Impact report released in 2012, San Antonio has around 1,556 manufacturers. The majority of these, 86 percent, are small businesses with 50 employees or less.

Large manufacturers like Toyota and Boeing account for only 14 percent of the total manufacturing workforce in the San Antonio/New Braunfels area. This means that most manufacturers are smaller operations that need to hold on to important employees, and they will pay to do so. According the report, the average San Antonio manufacturing employee has earned more than the average San Antonio employee every year since 2007.

After finishing this week’s pilot teacher-engagement program, the A TEAM plans to continue the program with other educators in the future. They will also continue to battle the perception that factory-related or manufacturing jobs are, to be blunt, bad jobs without a future.

“That problem is why we exist, and it’s not going to go away,” Smith said. “We are going to continue to fight to change that perception because it needs to be changed. We are going to have to keep reaching out to teachers, and we will keep reaching out to teachers and bring them in to educate them.”

*Featured/top image: Innovation Technology Machinery VP of Operations John Dewey. Photo by Andrew Moore.

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Andrew Moore is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote on tech startups for a year as a freelancer for Silicon Hills News and loves reporting on the cool...