Pennsylvania Manufacturer Thrives — If Only It Can Find Good Workers

ERIE, Pennsylvania — The instant you walk into the 750,000-square-foot PHB Industries tool and die plant, your senses are engulfed by the smells, buzzes and hums of machines and people making things. Instantly you are aware you are in a place where man, woman, technology, natural resources and robotics all collaborate for a multitude of product creation and assembly.

Aluminum die-casting; zinc die-casting; and machines of every size, shape and capability are everywhere, some run by a computer, some giving off thousands of degrees of heat and some guided by skilled workers.

The plant serves a multitude of markets that include household and industrial plastics, appliances, electronics, telecommunications, medical equipment, industrial equipment, and aerospace and defense industries.

Their customers are here in the United States and as far away as India and China.

If you are looking for a place that makes things, that allows you to buy American in a place that is hiring Americans, look no further than here. The family-oriented business is owned by John Hilbert, CEO of PHB, and his brother, William Hilbert Jr., the CEO of sister company Reddog Industries.

If you are looking for a place that has low turnover and is eager and aggressively looking to persuade young people to become skilled workers and invest in their future, this is also it.

PHB employs 500 and Reddog 60. John Hilbert said their biggest problem is not production but “finding people.”

He explained: “Overall, we’ve come through the whole COVID thing. April (and) part of March were the worst in the company’s history, as I’m sure that’s no surprise, but we’ve rebounded. Our customers have come back pretty strong. Beginning the first part of June, we’ve been running six days a week. But our skilled labor has been an issue for years and years. Getting our society in general to appreciate the fact that we need skilled labor and that trades are not a dirty word has been an uphill battle.”

Forty years ago, when manufacturing started to decline, teaching trades in high school became passe, and society decided in response that everyone had to go to college. Parents felt pressured, and students felt pressured, even when neither necessarily thought it was a good fit for themselves or their pocketbooks.

“Everybody doesn’t have to go to college,” said Hilbert. “You’ve heard this, and we’ve spent — my brother and a couple of other folks — have spent a tremendous amount of time pounding that home.”

President Donald Trump, who has made manufacturing a priority of his administration since the day he took office, has made funding worker training and education to fill manufacturing jobs a significant part of the Department of Labor’s budget.

Manufacturing jobs have historically been very well-paying jobs with good benefits. For people in places like here in Erie or due south in Youngstown, Trump’s replacement of NAFTA is considered by many voters to be one of the most important things the president has done.

In February of this year, Trump proposed a $900 million increase in education spending to teach skills and trades, the first time in years significant monies were proposed for that sector.

The Hilbert brothers, frustrated by the lack of local interest in or knowledge of exposing young people to these types of jobs — jobs still looked down upon by the intellectual class — decided to collaborate with other local companies to adopt local high schools and conduct seminars to attract them to their apprentice program.

“We went and talked to kids and conducted seminars with as many as two to four to six to eight kids. But there aren’t 30 kids interested in this business,” explained William Hilbert. “We’re trying to improve that as we go. We’re trying to, by word of mouth, grow and let people appreciate the fact that these are life-sustaining, family-sustaining jobs that they’re passing up to go to school.”

“We simply lay it out for them and tell them, ‘Girls, guys, by the time you’re done going to college, you’ll have $40,000 to $80,000 in debt racked up,” said John Hilbert, “and we’ll introduce them to a young man or a young woman who has gone through a training program of two years making $40,000 to $60,000 a year driving a brand new car and buying a house.”

Four young men who have made it through the program and earned their way up in the company — Justin Sommers, Luke Tarr, Evin Dougherty and Bill Hilbert III — all started as apprentices.

“Everyone here starts at the bottom. We certainly did,” explained John Hilbert, pointing to his brother William. “The first job we both had here was at 14 cleaning toilets.”

For generations, people in the U.S. were known for their work ethic, for making things, for using their hands alongside their intellect, from farming to mining to building roads and bridges. Our parents and grandparents and their parents before them built this country with those types of skills.

Those same jobs are often not just financially rewarding but also emotionally rewarding, often giving children and grandchildren the opportunity to remain in the communities that suit them rather than migrating to larger cities or faraway states that break up those family and community bonds.

“The manufacturing of today is not dirty,” explained William. “It is not dark and dirt. It is very clean, very well-lit, and very high-tech. And that is the problem. There’s too many people who have the wrong impression with regard to what we do here. They drive by, and they look, and they have no idea what’s going up. Everything we produce is produced by computer. You have to be hand-skilled.”

The opportunities are endless; people such as the Hilberts just need young people to seize them.


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