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Manufacturers are continuing their quest to find more qualified workers to fill job openings.

The challenge is hardly new, but manufacturers say they are determined to tackle what might seem to be a surprising problem amid high unemployment. And they say the issue is drawing more attention.

The average number of manufacturing jobs in Buffalo Niagara was on track to increase last year. Through November, the average was 52,900, up nearly 3 percent from the full-year total reported for 2011.

While that would be the region’s best annual figure since 2008, and the second-consecutive annual increase, the total was still far below the 92,600 average manufacturing jobs reported for 1990.

The Buffalo Niagara region no longer has multiple production plants each employing many thousands of workers, as the profile of manufacturing workplaces has changed. And the sector continues to take hits locally from the closings of operations like Gaymar in Orchard Park, Dal-Tile Corp. in Olean, and Ralcorp.’s announced shutdown of a pair of plants in Dunkirk and Silver Creek.

But the manufacturers that have weathered the recession don’t want a lack of available skilled workers to get in the way of growth.

Manufacturing advocates point to signs of life in the sector:

• New investment pouring into General Motors’ plants in the Town of Tonawanda and Lockport, and Ford Motor Co.’s plant in Hamburg.

• New yogurt plants opening in the Town of Batavia, creating hundreds of jobs.

• The local launch of the “Dream It, Do It” program, aimed at getting young people interested in manufacturing careers.

• Longer-range plans for a massive business park in Genesee County known as STAMP, which is expected to attract large-scale high-tech employers and benefit both the Buffalo and Rochester markets.

At the individual plant level, filling job vacancies remains a prominent issue. Some manufacturers say applicants often lack the proper skills or experience to get hired.

Chris Sansone, president of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, explained the situation to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at a presentation last month. Sansone, production manager at Keller Technology, said manufacturing is “still relevant” in Western New York, and that companies have opportunities attract new work from outside the region. But a lack of skilled workers in the pipeline presents a “major hurdle.”

Companies have coped by either hiring workers away from other manufacturers, implementing “expensive” apprenticeship programs, or just turning down work, Sansone said.

And while a shortage of skilled workers available to hire is considered a pressing issue now, Sansone said it could only get worse five to 10 years from now, as a large number of manufacturing workers, such as machinists, mechanics, welders and electricians, approach retirement age.

“It’s not just a local issue, it’s a national issue,” Sansone said.

The skilled-worker shortage hits home at metal fabricator Hebeler Corp., which has 330 employees at two locations and is trying to fill some jobs. But the manufacturing jobs of today tend to have higher technical requirements than in the past.

“It’s difficult to find skilled workers that meet all the requirements,” said Peter Coleman, the company’s business development manager. “We have to be pretty picky with the people we bring in to work with our system.”

Coleman said the “Dream It, Do It” program, with its outreach to schools, will help spread the message to young people about embracing those careers. “We want to stress that the trades are alive and viable today.”

Meanwhile, Hebeler’s business is picking up. Coleman said he believes some of the perceived advantages of manufacturing overseas are diminishing, with a rising middle class pushing up wages in those countries, and comparatively higher productivity from U.S. manufacturing workers.

Manufacturers that are growing in Western New York usually have zeroed in on a competitive advantage that is not easily duplicated cheaply overseas, often a combination of a skilled workforce, advanced manufacturing processes, and products that stand apart from lower-end versions. And many of these companies are generating higher sales through exporting, not relying solely on the ups and downs of the U.S. economy.

They are also capitalizing on growth opportunities. Ford Gum in Akron acquired from Wrigley the rights to produce Big League Chew, and began producing the gum in 2011. The company’s employment has grown to 129 people today from 92 people two years ago, said George Stege, Ford’s president.

Ford’s first-year sales of Big League Chew were impeded by the company’s difficulty in learning to make the shredded-gum product efficiently, but Ford still managed to match Wrigley’s 2010 sales for the brand, Stege said. Last year, Ford’s Big League Chew sales rose 34 percent, and the company’s output has grown to 1,000 cases per day from 250 previously. Ford is forecasting a 15 percent increase in Big League Chew sales this year; the company has expanded the brand into a gumball shape and Big League Chew Pops, as well.

“We have found it a selling point to remind buyers that the product is now made in the U.S.A.,” Stege said. Wrigley made the product in Mexico.

Stege said he sees U.S. manufacturing making a “resurgence,” with cheap natural gas helping energy-consuming industries and higher transportation costs making it more efficient for some companies to produce closer to their markets. In China, wages are rising, and its currency is under pressure to increase in value compared with the U.S. dollar, he said. But Stege said U.S. confectionery manufacturers still face specific challenges of their own, such as sugar pricing.

Sansone, of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, said the group has a number of goals and initiatives planned, including working with the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council to develop a “skills broker position.” That person would match employers with skilled workers they need, identify training programs that would build the skills employers are looking for, and make grants and investments that align education and the workplace.

The group would also be an active adviser to a proposed Buffalo Niagara Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Competitiveness, which would provide four services to manufacturers: applied research and development; process improvement; export assistance; and workforce training.

The BNMA will also work with statewide and regional groups on other efforts to promote the manufacturing sector, Sansone said. He said “Dream It, Do It” has had good results in the Southern Tier, and that Buffalo Niagara will use that region’s experiences as a guide for launching its own initiative.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com