Rhonda Johnson started on the assembly floor of Weber Knapp in 1991. Today she is the president of the company, which sits on Chandler Street in Jamestown.
On Friday, she and Todd Tranum, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of the Southern Tier, met with U.S. Rep. Nick Langworthy to discuss challenges manufacturers are facing today, including how to get more young people into manufacturing so they can succeed just as Johnson has.
Langworthy’s mother worked at the former Truck-Lite plant in Falconer so he’s familiar with manufacturing in the 23rd Congressional district. “Growing up here, I know all about the once great manufacturing that we had. This great company (Weber Knapp) was always one that people talked about and we need to keep that strong and restore that legacy. It’s something I’m very dedicated to — manufacturing,” he said.
Tranum noted how as manufacturing has changed over the years, the need for skilled laborers has increased. “In terms of workforce, that is still probably our number one challenge and opportunity. It’s a good problem to have because there’s a lot of jobs,” he said.
Tranum shared how the “Dream It Do It” program is working to bring young people into the field. They work a lot with schools and colleges, encouraging students to understand the opportunities that exist in the manufacturing sector.
Langworthy said what the Dream It Do It program is doing is important. “We want to destigmatize trade as much as possible,” he said.
Langworthy admits he prefers the government investing in strong companies and helping them expand compared to luring an unproven manufacturing company, offering tax dollars. “We’re always chasing grand slams. We should be chasing singles and doubles,” he said, using a baseball analogy.
For example, Langworthy noted how when Solar City was announced for Buffalo they received lots of hype and tax incentives, but the jobs haven’t followed. “That same day, they (government officials) gave $20 million to Ford to expand the line they were working on. They gave ungodly sums of cash to (Solar City) this unproven technology for solar shingles that’s pretty futuristic and probably not part of a market in our part of the world. If they had just invested more in Ford, would we have more to show for it today?” he asked.
Weber Knapp specializes in motion control engineering and counterbalance hinge design. Johnson noted how they offer family-sustaining wages and a retirement package. Their starting wage is $15 an hour. She noted how as minimum wage goes up, employees’ desires to learn a new skill to make more money drops. “If they can live on what they’re making, there’s not a lot of incentive,” she said.
The federal minimum wage is $7.20 an hour. New York’s minimum wage this year is $14.20 an hour. Langworthy, as a federal representative, has no control over the state minimum wage. Even though New York’s minimum wage is much higher than other places in the nation, including Pennsylvania, Johnson, Tranum and Langworthy all said they do not support increasing the federal minimum wage, which was last increased in 2008.
“I feel we’re in a different environment right now because of the demand for labor. I think you have to the market sort this out without putting more layers and Band-Aids, either at the state level or the federal level,” Tranum said.
Johnson agreed. “I think right now we don’t need the government interfering,” she said.
Langworthy said it’s unrealistic for anyone hiring across the U.S. to be able to hire someone at $7.25 an hour today. “It’s very competitive labor market. I’m sure our Pennsylvania manufacturers are paying far more than $7.25 an hour. … I don’t think a federal minimum wage increase would do anything other than add to inflation,” he said.
Instead, his focus is helping create opportunities in New York, including strengthening and restoring Western New York and the Southern Tier’s manufacturing industries.
Langworthy said the state is at the top of the list when it comes to education spending. But too often, after children are educated they move away. “We have to figure out how do we keep them here. How do we have the jobs, how do we have the careers, how do we have the bright economic opportunities?” he asked.