Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why Manufacturing Can Survive and Thrive in the Pittsburgh Region

Many people seem to believe that it’s only a matter of time until “real” manufacturing jobs (i.e., production jobs) completely disappear in southwestern Pennsylvania. Manufacturers here are just waiting for the opportunity to close their plants and move to other states and other countries, right?

Wrong. Here’s a little-known story that proves the point – how a Pittsburgh Region manufacturing facility that was on the verge of closing transformed itself into one of the best manufacturing plants in the country.

Mine Safety Appliances is one of the largest employers in the region. It’s a manufacturer in the traditional sense – it makes products like respirators, helmets, eye protectors, etc. Moreover, it manufactures its products to the highest levels of quality, because people’s lives depend on them.

Mine Safety Appliances is an international company with nearly $1 billion in sales and over 4,000 employees. It was started here over 90 years ago. Its headquarters is here, its R&D facilities are here, and it also manufactures products here.

In 1996, Mine Safety Appliances experienced a cutback in orders for protective helmets (hard hats), and needed to close one of its plants because of overcapacity. The logical choice was the plant with the highest costs and lowest productivity. At the time, that was the Murrysville plant (just east of Pittsburgh).

But thanks to CEO John Ryan's commitment to his and the company's hometown, he gave the Murrysville plant a chance to improve itself before the final decision was made.

The workers themselves took on the challenge to improve productivity. Within six months, productivity had jumped from 75% to 86%. As a result of the improvement, Mine Safety closed a plant in Rhode Island rather than the Murrysville plant.

But the transformation didn't stop there. By 1999, the Murrysville plant had productivity of 95.4%. Thanks in part to the Murrysville Plant, Mine Safety Appliances won Home Depot's Supplier of the Year award in 1999.

In 2000, the Murrysville Plant was named one of the Best Plants in North America by Industry Week magazine. And just this past fall, it was named one of the safest plants in America by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

An isolated case? Was it because the plant was non-union?

No -- U.S. Steel's Mon Valley Works was also named one of the Best Plants in North America by Industry Week in 1996 because of the worker-led quality improvement efforts there.

The experience at these and other plants demonstrates that the Pittsburgh Region offers something that many manufacturers find very valuable: a workforce they can count on to produce high quality products reliably and efficiently. Not every type of manufacturer needs that for its products - some care more about paying the lowest wage possible - but for those that need a reliable, skilled workforce, southwestern Pennsylvania is the place to be. And that means that the Pittsburgh Region can not only survive but thrive as a manufacturing center.


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