Q&A talks about jobs and the booming aviation sector with Gary Greenberg, president of Birken Manufacturing in Bloomfield.
Q: Pratt & Whitney has the Geared Turbo Fan engine coming out in four years, which will provoke a surge in manufacturing part work in Connecticut. Pratt is also the sole supplier on the F-135 engine for the military Joint Strike Fighter. Those two programs provide a huge opportunity for local suppliers. How is Birken gearing up to meet the demand?
A: The Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) is already designed and testing is ongoing. We are providing our first prototype part now and expect to see many more as the next several years unfold. We have made about 40 different part numbers for the JSF Fighter, some experimental and some currently in production. We will ramp up production as Pratt's schedule ramps up. Thus far we have been able to keep up with demand.
Q: That work and other projects are expected to create hundreds of jobs. Can Connecticut meet the demand with a home-grown workforce or are you going to rely on out-of-state recruiting?
A: We have not gone out-of-state to find employees (other than the Springfield, Mass., area). We are concerned about the technical skills of the current workforce available. However, we are working closely with Asnuntuck Community College and their skilled machinist training program. We are providing scholarship funds to train multiple students in CNC machining and quality control and offering part-time apprentice training in our shop until they graduate from the program. If they meet our standards after graduation, they are hired full-time.
Q: There's also the ongoing problem of developing a trained workforce to meet the demand. How is that challenge going to be overcome in the next few years?
A: Besides our apprentice program, we are investing in more technology, mainly machine tools that can perform multiple operations and processes with one set-up. Some of our newer machines can operate for eight hours completing multiple parts and multiple operations with no operator present. While we continue to seek a fully-trained workforce, we realize that competing on pricing with low-cost labor countries requires that the machines do more to help reduce overhead.
The ramp up, as far as we can see, is real. Not only the GTF and F-135 engine programs at Pratt, but Rolls Royce has the Trent 900 (A380 Airbus), the Trent 1000 (Boeing 787) and the Airbus/Rolls Royce XWB which will provide a major increase of work for all companies in our area. GE also has the GEnx (for the 787) and the LEAP engine programs. On April 19, GE announced that Qantas Airlines placed a $2 billion order for the LEAP to power 78 Airbus 320 neo aircraft that are currently on order. And that is only one engine model and one airline.
Q: How does a company responsibly avoid sending jobs overseas to places like Poland, China and Turkey where labor costs are lower? Does being a privately owned company give you more flexibility on profits?
A: Low cost overseas labor is a tough issue. Our customers constantly want us to reduce cost in the products we sell. We are also "graded" on a monthly report card from large customers, not only on quality and on time delivery, but on efforts to reduce cost including seeking low-cost labor. We have consciously avoided sending work overseas because of the cost of transportation, loss of control, and lack of guaranteed quality in the low-cost nations. We also see a movement now at "re-shoring" (bringing jobs back to this country that were previously exported.) The government obviously wants to create manufacturing jobs and there are more and more incentives, both state and federal, to keep jobs here.
However, we also have to be realistic. First, our customers are selling to emerging major markets in China, India and Asia. In order to sell aircraft to these countries, foreign governments and airlines are demanding jobs in their countries in exchange. With that said, we firmly believe that the skills, the expertise and the logistics of manufacturing original equipment in the U.S. still give us an advantage.
Q: Birken will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Bloomfield location this fall. What is ahead in the next 10 years? Can Birken continue to stay in Bloomfield and Greater Hartford? Can it continue to thrive here?
A: We will be here, in Bloomfield, for many years to come. While we have challenges with the cost of doing business, we have a great management team and a motivated workforce. We are optimistic about our apprentice program and our customers are working with us more closely than ever before. We have the technical ability they are looking for and they are putting more responsibility on us as we show consistent quality and on-time delivery. We believe we can compete successfully against low-cost countries with multiple process "lights-out" machining and we look forward to the challenges of the ramp up in all platforms coming to our industry over the next 20 years.