Parents need to get over the idea that their kids are failures if they don’t excel at math or science in school, because America – Santa Clarita – needs skilled tradesmen to drive the engines of the local and national economy.
That was perhaps the biggest message to come from the Valley Industry Association’s monthly gathering Tuesday at the Valencia Country Club where three local manufacturing leaders discussed the pitfalls they face in doing business in California.
It wasn’t over-regulation; the subject was barely broached. It wasn’t competition from China, though that’s certainly a factor. To the panelists, the biggest challenge is education, specifically the lack of training most teenagers would need to qualify for a skilled profession – jobs that often pay better than those requiring a suit and tie.
“We find (new employees who) want to work hard and want to learn, and we bring them up,” said Rod Smith, vice president of Bayless Engineering and Manufacturing, a diversified machine shop in Valencia.
From left: Rod Smith, Brad Spahr, Bill Barritt
“Most of my people in my shop started at the bottom,” Smith said. “That’s where I started. I started at the very bottom and learned the trade. I do very well. Mr. Bayless pays me very well to run his shop, and I did it with a high school education.”
We can’t all be astronauts and doctors and attorneys,” said Bill Barritt, chief financial officer of Aerospace Dynamics (ADI). “Why aren’t we encouraging our kids who don’t show an aptitude for calculus or biology or chemistry – why aren’t we helping them learn a vocation, start getting summer jobs, start apprenticing, and start building up the skills that are necessary? Why do we let them think that if you don’t get good grades, you fail?”
Barritt’s company is expanding into its fifth building in the Valencia Industrial Center – a building previously occupied by Gruber Systems – and has a large new construction project in the works.
ADI helps support the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at College of the Canyons, whose instructors provide on-the-job vocational training to ADI’s new-hires – training which, in the days of wood and auto shop, they’d have received in high school.
It’s not that the local high schools don’t offer vocational training. They do. The Hart School District’s Regional Occupational Program trains students in dozens of different skilled disciplines ranging from forestry to culinary arts to video production. But ROP is voluntary. It’s not part of the regular academic day.
“People need to understand, kids need to understand, the parents need to understand, that you can make a good living” in the trades, Barritt said. “We need to build a strong working class. That’s why all the emerging nations are commanding all the investment dollars. They have a strong middle class.”
While he didn’t focus on vocational training, panelist Brad Spahr of Specialty Motors discussed the heavy tax burden Californians face in relation to other states and shared how his company – which makes small, precision motors for a applications ranging from kitchen appliances to wheel chairs – weathered the recent recession.
In 2009, “the recession hit us hard,” he said. “We went from about $4.7 million (in sales) to just under $3.5 million. They way we got through it was … we just decided we were going to survive.”
Spahr talked to clients to determine realistic sales expectations and “set up a budget and said, ‘We’re going to live with this.’”
“For 18 months I took minimum wage,” he said. “I was the lowest paid employee in the company. “When people were complaining about (a reduced work week), at least I could say, ‘I’m taking a bigger hit than you.’”
Cash management was a daily endeavor, and Specialty Motors “went outside the box for new business,” ordering completed motors directly from China for the first time.
“If we raise taxes,” said Barritt of ADI, “we simply won’t be able to compete globally with employers who pay their workers for a week of work what ADI pays for a day of work.” He estimated that Chinese factory wages are $200 per week.
Barritt told a story of an otherwise valuable worker who was fired when ADI learned he was scamming the company out of money on a medical insurance fraud scheme.
“Medical and workers comp insurance fraud must be rooted out,” he said. “It’s a national problem, but especially here in California.”