The challenge of selling locally manufactured products in global markets in 2017 has intensified.
“We expected to have a big machine purchase from China in January, and I’m afraid that our current political situation has delayed that,” said Elizabeth Miller, president of Miller Mechanical Services in Glens Falls and chairwoman of Doty Machine Works in Fort Edward.
Nevertheless, manufacturing employment in the Glens Falls region generally is expected to remain steady in 2017 as companies focus on quality, diversification and efficiency, according to local manufacturing executives.
“We don’t see any significant growth on the horizon, but some of the sectors we sell into are very volatile,” which could necessitate adding jobs if sales in sectors such as solar energy increase more rapidly than expected, said Frank Barber, president and chief executive officer of Ames Goldsmith, which employs 71 people at plants in Glens Falls and South Glens Falls.
The exception may be the medical device industry, which is expected to increase employment due to the temporary repeal of a federal excise tax and reform of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s product review process, said EDC Warren County President Edward Bartholomew.
“Expansion projects and new product lines that were put on the shelf are now being pursued, which will mean new jobs in the region,” he said.
Bartholomew said the paper industry locally is stable because companies have modernized their operations and because of an ample local wood supply.
“There are certain things in the world that you can control, and certain things that you cannot,” said Derek Basile, vice president and chief financial officer for Finch Paper. “We’ve been focusing heavily on what we can control and improving our efficiencies here at the mill.”
Finch Paper, which employs about 600 people in Glens Falls, is poised to capitalize on diversification implemented in 2016.
Diversification has led to establishing some new specialized technical and sales positions, but overall employment levels are expected to stay about the same.
The company, which makes high-grade printing and writing paper, recently added new food service industry and packaging paper products.
Finch Paper received federal Food and Drug Administration approval and began producing “food contact paper” used for disposable plates, cups and ketchup containers.
“That’s a high-growth market,” Basile said.
“Luxury packaging grades” is another new product line.
“Those are very high-end products that you see in perfume boxes and watch packaging” or are used to print shopping bags for high-end retailers, he said.
Basile said 21 percent of the mill’s volume in 2016 was from new products and new customers.
“Considerable achievement when you think about the broader paper market declines of 3 to 4 percent,” he said.
Basile said the biggest challenge Finch faces in 2017 is hiring local workers who have necessary science, technology, engineering and math skills.
“That’s one of the things that we look at in the area in general, that we all as manufacturers are focused on, is the development of that talent pipeline,” he said.
“The production floor and factory of today is much different than that of generations past, and it is taking time to attract interest from younger workers entering the workforce to view manufacturing as the lucrative career path it has become,” Bartholomew said.
SUNY Adirondack is meeting with a task force of manufacturers to plan a new series of non-credit, short-term STEM skills training classes, said John Jablonski, the college’s vice president for academic affairs.
SUNY Adirondack will coordinate specialized skills courses that individual employers would not have enough workers to implement on their own.
“Each one might only have a handful of employees that need the training, and it’s not cost effective,” he said. “Now we can afford to get the critical mass that we need by identifying those common skill sets that they all need.”
Courses could be offered as soon as spring or summer.
SUNY Adirondack also is exploring the feasibility of expanding its “Early College Career Academy” program in electrical skills to offer a new option in “mecatronics,” which is a combination of mechanical and electronic skills.
The program, a partnership between the college and Washington, Saratoga, Warren, Hamilton, Essex BOCES, is for high school students who receive both high school and college credit for courses.
The closing of the General Electric Co. plant in Fort Edward last year has left experienced machinists looking for jobs elsewhere, Miller said.
Doty Machine Works already has hired two former GE workers through a job retraining program with BOCES, she said.
Miller Mechanical, one of the companies she runs, fabricates metal parts for paper industry machinery.
“That was a little sluggish last year, but this year it’s picking up,” she said.
Doty Machine Works, her other company, does machining work for local manufacturers and makes machines that manufacture steel plates, primarily an export product.
“We’ve sold some in previous years to South Korea, Vietnam, China and Japan. And we have three to four possibilities this year,” she said.
Miller said she is hopeful the expected orders will materialize in a few months, once the national political climate settles.
“It’s a little disconcerting, I would say,” she said.
Barber said exporting also is a challenge for Ames Goldsmith, which makes silver-based products, but the challenge is because of long-standing trade issues, not the current political climate.
“A lot of our materials go into electronic applications. Obviously, a lot of that sector is based in the Far East,” he said. “What I am happy to say is we’re a net exporter of products, which is a good feeling.”
China is a particularly difficult market.
“The Chinese government, from what we understand, subsidizes the metals for local Chinese companies. What that does is it puts us at a really unfair advantage,” Barber said. “The only way that we’re able to do that is because our technology, at least for the time being, is stronger.”
Meanwhile, local manufacturers “are in a great position” to benefit from the national political emphasis on convincing multi-national companies to bring jobs back to the United States, Bartholomew said.
“Much has been written lately about the prospect of re-shoring of companies,” he said.
Recent National Grid infrastructure work in northern Saratoga County will improve the reliability of industrial power supply in the region, and increase the potential of recruiting new manufacturers, he said.
Read more about the local economic outlook in our Outlook section, page F1. Also, read a sit-down interview with Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tori Riley, Local, Page B1.