An Amazon worker organizes packages in a shipping container at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
An Amazon worker organizes packages in a shipping container at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Great solutions often start with great discussions. Problems discussed openly lead to ideas, which lead to plans and then to actions.

That was the intent behind two town hall meetings this fall that the San Antonio Manufacturers Association and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) organized in a joint effort. The sessions brought together an array of community partners who explored what the city’s manufacturing economy needs to thrive, grow, and continue to provide jobs.

Those needs matter because manufacturing is a bulwark of the regional economy. Data from 2011 showed that the industry (including exports) had an annual economic impact of more than $30 billion, a major increase compared to the $7 billion impact it had in 1991. The 2011 statistics also show that more than 50,000 people were employed in manufacturing and earned an average of $47,499 per year in wages.

There are more than 1,600 manufacturing companies in the greater San Antonio area. The household-name companies like Toyota and Caterpillar employ thousands, but the vast majority of manufacturers are much smaller, employing 10 to 15 or perhaps up to 50 people at companies that make components for jet fighter planes, medical devices, beverage dispensers, oil field equipment, baked goods, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Workforce Challenges

It’s neither new nor unique to say that San Antonio’s manufacturing industry is struggling to find the workers it needs – this is a problem across the U.S. From entry-level assembly technicians to highly credentialed engineers, manufacturers are having a hard time filling their talent pipelines.

The yellow armed robot "Robo-Stow" at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
The Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz uses a yellow armed robot “Robo-Stow” to do the majority of the heavy lifting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

This issue was a recurring theme during the two town hall meetings, and it’s not an easy problem to solve. The parents of today’s teenagers – the future generation of workers – still tend to believe the old clichés of manufacturing floors being grimy, hot, dangerous and undesirable career path. But few of those parents, let alone their kids, have ever seen a modern, advanced manufacturing facility where workers are more likely to work on computers or alongside robots.

Many would also be surprised to learn that manufacturing offers solid middle-class and higher wages to people without college degrees and avoids the massive debt loads that often accompany those degrees.

At the other end of the career spectrum are Baby Boomers who have been working in manufacturing for 35 to 40 or more years. After long and productive careers, they are retiring from manufacturing companies across America and taking with them their accumulated knowledge. The issue at hand is that only a precious few young people are coming in to replace them; Ask any manufacturing company owner about this out-of-balance equation and virtually all of them will tell you that it’s affecting them, too.

The good news in San Antonio is that we have been focusing on solving the workforce shortage problem for several years now. Innovative programs involving great community partners like Alamo Colleges, ATEAMS, Toyota and others are producing a reliable flow of bright, energized talent ready to get to work at myriad manufacturing operations across our region. However, we need to do more to create a truly robust talent pipeline.

Economic Uncertainty

The town halls also spotlighted manufacturers’ concerns about the future of global and local economies. Greece’s financial meltdown, China’s flip from white hot to lukewarm, the rapid plunge in world oil markets – these scenario, among others, make manufacturers skittish about investing in capital improvements or adding staff. No one wants to make a major capital commitment if they believe market and economic risks are too high.

Town hall participants also spoke on the uncertainty created by what some perceive as an overly aggressive administration that seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for industrial companies to operate. Manufacturers and others wonder when the next new federal mandate will come down and how much it will cost them to comply. Some wonder if they can afford to continue on in business if the federal government tightens the screws one more turn. Just ask someone in the coal industry how this works.

What’s Next

The hardest part of the process began after the town halls. SAMA and SAEDF are currently compiling notes and organizing key areas of concern to distill it down to a report. It will include action items to address workforce, economic and other issues that SAMA members brought to light in the town hall sessions. Without a doubt, it will tap into the same philosophy – teamwork, partnership and community – that has helped San Antonio succeed in so many other arenas.

The process won’t stop with the completion of the report or even after we begin acting on its findings. For manufacturing to continue to provide good-paying careers and economic vitality to San Antonio, we’ll need ongoing, active participation and ideas from our members and our allies to make sure we stay ahead of the curve.

Manufacturing has been essential to the local economy for each of San Antonio’s almost 300 years of existence. Despite the challenges highlighted in our recent town hall discussions, we’re 100% confident manufacturing will continue to underpin our economy for many more centuries to come.

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Rey Chavez and Jeff Garvens

Rey Chavez is president and CEO and Jeff Garvens is chairman of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association.