Faced with labor shortages, Valley businesses turn to technology – Business Journal Daily
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Trends like automated robots on the manufacturing floor or offices hiring virtual assistants from the Philippines aren’t widely adopted in the region.
But dwindling job demands and an increased need for efficiency over the past two years have led businesses in the region to explore such technology-based solutions. And local IT companies are seeing an increase in customers seeking advice on how to do it right.
Avrem Technologies LLC in Canfield has seen more customers adopt remote working options, which appeal to young job seekers, says owner and CEO Robert Merva.
Among Avrem’s customers, “Twenty percent really don’t care where the employees work. 40% have adopted a hybrid model. “It gives you a wider range of talents that you can take advantage of,” says Merva.
But remote work is not an option for manufacturers. Local manufacturers are finding ways to leverage IT and technology solutions to improve efficiency and manage costs.
Technology in manufacturing
Livi Steel Inc. in Warren hasn’t had a chance to hire formworkers to ramp up production and take some of the burden off its existing workforce, says Ashley Morrow, payroll and human ressources. To increase production capacity, company president Donald Livi turned to automation.
In mid-October, the steelmaker purchased and installed a PythonX robotic computer numerical control, or CNC, plasma cutting system. The system allows workers to complete in minutes what would normally take an hour.
“Every day it amazes me,” Morrow says. “The quality of the material, the way it makes things more efficient and the way it makes the installer’s job easier because it already does A, B, C and D. So now they just have to do E and F.”
Automation reduces human error that could abort a project, she says. It also relieves operators of repetitive motions that could lead to injury later in life.
Executive Computer Management Solutions Inc., or ECMSI, works with its manufacturer customers to monitor high-tech equipment like robotics, says CFO Jerry Savo.
Some equipment may be tethered to Wi-Fi, so keeping that signal strong and preventing breaches is imperative to avoid downtime, Savo says.
Robotics increased Livi Steel’s efficiency and allowed the company to take on additional tasks, requiring more workers, Morrow says.
The company needs to hire at least three more fitters and could use three more in a month or two.
“I think when people hear ‘automation,’ they think, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to fire them,'” she says. “That is not the case. We still need to flesh out our squad.”
Current workers learned new skills to use the equipment, moving them up the ladder “and moving up the pay scale and benefits,” Morrow says.
Transparency is key to performing this type of automated equipment, she says.
Before PythonX was installed, Donald Livi made it clear to workers that he was doing it to make their lives easier and to increase job security by increasing capacity.
“I’ve seen such an increase in our morale,” Morrow says. “A guy ended up buying a new truck and he was like, ‘I’ve never bought a new truck in my life.’ ”
Before making a purchase, companies should consider whether they can afford the equipment, she says. They need to crunch the numbers to see if they can recoup the cost of the equipment and understand that “it may not happen overnight,” she says.
Matthew Foerster agrees.
Foerster, sales manager for Starr Manufacturing Inc. in Vienna, says companies also need to consider the human investment – the time it takes to train the workforce to use the new systems or hire those who can.
“You need to seek out and develop a human brain that is somewhat experienced, but also somewhat new and fresh-minded and ready to step into this next arena,” says Foerster.
Starr Manufacturing’s new robotic welding cell does the work of four human welders, he says. The objective is to maintain its current production levels and potentially increase its capacity in the context of a shortage of candidate welders.
So-called “cobots” – robotic welding units working alongside human operators – are Starr’s current and future solution to adapting to workforce challenges. The company plans to implement another such system this year or next.
“We’re not downsizing,” Foerster says emphatically. “We’re just trying to add capacity because the people just aren’t there.”
Struthers-based ECMSI handles all of Starr’s internal IT work, Foerster says. Security is a major consideration for Starr, and ECMSI has mitigated breach attempts with virus protection software.
Manufacturers are just as concerned about safety as other industries, says ECMSI’s Savo. Improving efficiency is also a key objective.
“Their margins are, in many ways, lower than many other companies,” Savo says. “In this competitive global market, they really need to be as efficient as possible.”
Starr Manufacturing is upgrading its enterprise resource planning, or ERP, software which
integrates its computer-aided drafting or CAD systems with its project management systems, streamlining projects.
“So all of that duplicate data entry, and sometimes the human error that creeps into data entry, is mostly eliminated,” says Foerster.
At the highest activity levels, that efficiency equates to almost a full-time job, he says. “So now we can have the same squad but do more and sell more.”
An artificial intelligence component also enables easier scanning and sorting of paper documents.
Foerster operates the system, although he would like to hire someone to fill that role, he says. Because the system is so new, it can be difficult to find candidates with ERP experience. Notable traits sought include project management, planning and data entry with knowledge of manufacturing.
Go remotely, locally and abroad
Like many offices, Gem-Young Insurance & Wealth Advisors LLC has embraced remote working options during the pandemic, CEO Leo Daprile Sr said.
The agency recently hired its first virtual assistant from the Philippines to support its account managers, which poses additional technology challenges, Daprile says. Since Gem-Young couldn’t connect the worker to their phone system, the agency had to rely on cloud-based solutions.
Gem-Young is working with Avrem Technologies to establish and monitor these solutions.
The first step is to establish a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows businesses to connect to a private network using a public network, Merva explains.
Replacing physical servers with cloud services also benefits remote working. Solutions like Office 365 have been a game-changer, he says.
Virtual assistants are not a new concept. But they can benefit businesses struggling to find workers.
“The last time I hired an account manager three or four years ago, when I posted an ad, I stopped counting resumes at 298,” says Daprile. “Last round, over six weeks, I got maybe 50.”
When hiring a virtual assistant, Daprile recommends working with agencies that specialize in recruiting and training these workers.
While Gem-Young was involved in final interviews and providing virtual training modules, the company he worked with handled the rest.
“Make sure you’re clear on what you want this employee to do,” he says. “Make sure you understand the company you’re working with and what their training processes are.”
When possible, Merva recommends that employers provide company-owned hardware to remote workers. This ensures easier management, better security, and employees don’t use old devices.
“There’s not much we can do as an IT company if you have an employee who wants to use their 10- or 15-year-old computer to connect to a work network,” he says.
Companies might also have to pay for stronger internet connections for their remote workers, Merva continues.
As Avrem helps clients set up remote work infrastructures, he’s amazed at how many people are using weak internet connections at home.
Some workers live “in the middle of nowhere” and don’t have access to high-speed Internet, he says.
Others live in an area where the Internet is widespread, but they don’t use it.
“We saw DSL connections that we hadn’t seen in 15 years,” he says. “We saw dial-up access in a few cases that I didn’t even know existed anymore.”
Along with her own remote efforts, communication was Avrem’s biggest challenge, Merva recalls. However, messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have mitigated this problem.
Microsoft Teams has helped Easterseals in Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana counties collaborate remotely and save time, too, says office administrator Christine Santangelo. The trick, she says, was getting staff to use the training modules for the software.
“When you’re so overwhelmed and busy, it’s hard to get people to stop and take the time to go through the training,” Santangelo says.
She pointed out to her colleagues that the solutions would improve worker efficiency.
“As a nonprofit, we get a lot of funds from donations and grants and things like that,” she says. “I’ve always thought that working for a [nonprofit], I want to use every bit of money given to us wisely. And if I don’t work efficiently, I feel like I’m wasting money.
ECMSI helped Easterseals deploy new electronic medical records software to improve the efficiency of its outpatient rehabilitation services. He is looking to expand the software to his adult day center, Santangelo says.
Financing such purchases is a challenge for nonprofit organizations. Santangelo recommends organizations consider sources such as TechSoup, a nonprofit organization that offers software downloads at a discounted rate.
“It was very helpful for us,” she says. “We are able to get the Office suite at a very reasonable price compared to what we would have if we had paid full price.”
Pictured: At Starr Manufacturing, Ron Kester operates and programs the new robotic welding cell, which does the work of four human welders, says Matthew Foerster.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.