Manufacturing jobs rebound in Tulsa
BY KYLE ARNOLD World Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2012
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Oologah's Chris Thomas thought he had found a dream job when he was hired by Tulsa's McElroy Manufacturing in 2009.
For seven months, he trained in assembly at the locally owned company, until the harsh realities of the recession left Thomas - like nearly 10,000 other manufacturing workers in the Tulsa area - with a pink slip.
"I was unemployed and it was a really tough time," Thomas said. "I did manage to find a job somewhere else, but it wasn't as good as this one."
It was a low time for Thomas and McElroy, as the pipe fusion equipment maker and machining shop laid off about 80 employees and struggled to retool the business to prevent further layoffs.
But about 18 months ago, Thomas got the call back to McElroy, and he wasn't the only one.
CNC (computer numerical controlled) operator and Detroit automotive manufacturing veteran Kaying Yang also found himself out of work from McElroy but is now back to work after nearly eight months of unemployment. Gary Rany Jr., another CNC operator from Tulsa, spent just more than a year without a job before being hired on at McElroy in May 2010.
The story is similar for many experienced manufacturing workers and companies across the region as the industry comes roaring back from desperate lows.
After the Tulsa area shed more than 10,000 jobs during the recession, the area has regained nearly 8,500 jobs since January and February 2010, when local unemployment rates hit 8.7 percent.
The unemployment rate was back under 5 percent in the area in April, and Tulsa is closing in on its prerecession highs for manufacturing jobs.
Oil and natural gas can take most of the credit for the boom with oil trading for more than $80 a barrel and exploration projects still plentiful. Aerospace manufacturers are also increasing orders, and more companies are moving manufacturing projects back to the United States as costs here grow more competitive with China.
"Oil and gas is probably the big driver, but aerospace is still strong as well," said Curtis Evans, a manufacturing extension agent with the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance.
Once considered a dying industry, production jobs are leading the local employment rebound and far outpacing gains in other sectors. The boost in manufacturing employment has even tripled gains in the health-care industry, and manufacturing is even making up for continuing losses in areas such as retail and food service.
Evans said across the region, companies are begging for experienced welders, machinists and assembly floor veterans but are also looking for entry-level workers out of trade school. In many instances, companies are even willing to train workers who show potential.
Now companies that learned to be more productive and survive with fewer employees are struggling to find workers fast enough to keep up a staggering number of new orders.
Between June 2008 and January 2010, nearly 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Tulsa disappeared, sapped by dwindling demand, dropping oil prices and overall sluggishness in the worldwide economy.
The 60-year-old McElroy Manufacturing, with a factory at 833 N. Fulton Ave., was not immune from the recession, despite doing most of its business in the energy sector. The company also does work for the utility sector and any other company that might need to fuse two pieces of plastic pipe together using one of McElroy's machines.
"It was a struggle for us there for a while," said company President Chip McElroy. "We had a lot of growth in recent years, but the orders just weren't coming, and our customers were holding back."
The company laid off about 80 employees by 2010, dropping to 180 workers at its Tulsa plant as McElroy and the other company leaders found ways to produce more product with less manpower.
It was tough for McElroy, who said he has always measured the success of the factory by how many jobs he can provide.
"We didn't want to lay anyone off, but people can't work if we don't have anything to make," he said.
But in mid-2010 orders started increasing for McElroy, and a few months later the company began working to rehire workers and find skilled workers, such as welders and CNC machinists.
At the end of May, McElroy had more than 310 employees, and McElroy is struggling to fill high-skill positions such as CNC machinists and welders.
"If I could find more I would hire them today," McElroy said.
Steve Mosher, president of Precise Machining & Manufacturing in Tulsa, prided his company in never making a layoff in 34 years of business. But his machining shop of 240 employees, located at 12716 E. Pine St., was forced to lay off 19 people as orders for his aerospace parts dropped and other struggling manufacturers provided more price competition.
"Our customers are forcing the price way down on us, and we've had to go down on our price," Mosher said. "We've just had to get faster equipment and make due with fewer people."
Mosher said his company has seen orders increase in recent months, and it is again searching for experienced workers.
Tulsa's Hill Manufacturing dropped from a low of 75 workers in 2008 to just 12 in 2010, said President Cheryl Hill.
The company, which works primarily in the aerospace sector, is back up to a staff of 55 workers, and the only thing stopping it from returning to its prerecession highs is a lack of skilled workers.
Hill has begun training some inexperienced workers that show an aptitude for computer machining skills, but she said it costs thousands of dollars and years to train a new person on the complicated machines that cut raw metal into expensive parts with precision measured in thousands of millimeters.
The dearth of experienced machinists and welders is increasing wages for those skilled workers, manufacturing executives say.
Tulsa has one of the nation's highest concentration of welders, ranking just behind Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles for the total number of welders, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the mean hourly wage for welder-type jobs in Tulsa is up to $18.61 an hour, giving the average Tulsa-area welder better pay than welders in Los Angeles, Chicago or Dallas.
Similarly, the mean machinist wage was expected to be about $17.57 an hour in May, the agency reported.
Hill is now working with an industrial recruiting firm to find more workers.
"I've been hiring every chance I can," said Hill, "This is the highest demand that I've ever had for work, and we need qualified people."
Original Print Headline: Building new jobs
Kyle Arnold 918-581-8380
Richard Wise welds a machine frame at McElroy Manufacturing's facility in Tulsa. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Joe Kinsey works on a piece of machinery at McElroy Manufacturing's facility in Tulsa. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Workers move about McElroy Manufacturing's facility in Tulsa. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Dante Jarvis assembles equipment at McElroy Manufacturing's facility in Tulsa. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World