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Cos. Facing Tough Time Finding Key Part: Skilled Employees

Every time Jo Marie Diamond, president of the East County Economic Development Council, runs into a manufacturer’s human resources manager, they tell her they’re struggling to find skilled workers to fill open positions.

San Diego manufacturing jobs this year returned to a level not seen since the early 2000s, topping 107,000 in the summertime before falling by about 2,000 in subsequent months.

As jobs have rebounded — albeit not to the numbers seen in the industry’s heyday, when more than 130,000 were employed by manufacturers — the trick now is finding qualified people to add to the payroll.

“They can’t take on work if they don’t have people to do the work,” Diamond said.

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Greater Skillsets Needed

Jo Marie Diamond
Shea Benton

Advanced manufacturing, which often requires technological expertise and the ability to operate complex machinery, makes up a significant portion of San Diego’s manufacturing industry. That’s a boon to employees, who earn more than they could in traditional manufacturing jobs. But it also means the bar for entry to employment is higher.

San Diego-based nonprofit organization Workshop for Warriors, which trains veterans in advanced manufacturing techniques, has a waiting list to get into the program, as well as a list of employees ready to hire students as soon as they graduate.

While employers are concerned about the dearth of qualified employees, the region’s manufacturing sector is likely to continue to see steady growth thanks to the diversity of its businesses, from producers of artisan chocolates to massive commercial ships.

Variety of Products

“Other regions specialize in a couple verticals, but here we have everything from life sciences to sports and active lifestyle companies to defense,” said Shea Benton, economic development manager for the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.

That diversity, driven by growth in the region’s top sectors, including life science and defense, will push San Diego manufacturing to grow 14 percent over the next nine years, Benton said.

However, that doesn’t mean it is entirely clear what kind of growth the region should expect in 2017.

It’s possible that defense-related manufacturing could see a bump were the new administration to follow through on proposals to expand the military, Benton said.

Increasing awareness of the Cali Baja Bi-National Mega-Region, an EDC initiative intended to showcase Baja California and San Diego and Imperial counties, could also encourage manufacturing growth in the region as companies take advantage of the cross-border economy, he said.

Further from the border region, manufacturing clusters exist in the north and east portions of the San Diego County, an area where some local deals were made this year by manufacturers.

Acquisitions

Poway-based holding company Cohu Inc. announced it would acquire Japan-based Kita Manufacturing Co. Ltd., a maker of metal probes used in electronics testing, and Carlsbad’s Callaway Golf acquired Toulon Design, a Vista-based putter maker.

Diamond said the region was proud that two of three manufacturing finalists for MetroConnect, World Trade Center San Diego’s export assistance program, were from East County.

Still, the limiting factor for manufacturers in San Diego looking to grow will be finding the right employees, she said.

“The production workers that also have the smarts to learn the computers — they’re just hard to come by,” she said. Training takes time — face time: “You can’t learn this stuff virtually.”

Overall, while the strength of the dollar is worrying some local manufacturers who export, going into 2017 “my sense is that they’re optimistic,” she said.

MANUFACTURING

No. of local jobs: 105,500

Average salary: About $80,000

Economic impact: $21 billion (2015)

Top Companies in sector: DJO Finance LLC, General Dynamics NASSCO, Tyco Healthcare, UTC Aerospace Systems, Solar Turbines Inc.

Sources: California Economic Development Department; San Diego Regional Economic Development Center

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