Pratt & Whitney looking for skilled machinists in Maine as jet engine business takes off

David Veno, a machinist at Pratt & Whitney's plant in North Berwick checks the fixture prior to beginning a vertical turret lathe operation.
Pratt & Whitney
David Veno, a machinist at Pratt & Whitney's plant in North Berwick checks the fixture prior to beginning a vertical turret lathe operation.
Posted March 02, 2012, at 8 p.m.
Last modified March 03, 2012, at 9:25 a.m.

NORTH BERWICK, Maine — Ray Lambert keeps close watch on the metal piece at the center of the huge milling machine, eyeing the long metal spirals slowly curling off, checking measurements on a computer screen to make sure dimensions remain accurate to within 1/2000ths of an inch.

The part Lambert is working on is one of the roughly 1,200 types that Pratt & Whitney makes at its North Berwick plant — parts from as small as 2 inches square to as big as 7 feet in diameter that fit into military and commercial jet engines around the world. Every piece must be physically perfect; jet engines don’t operate well when even one of their 2,000 or so moving parts doesn’t fit in just so.

Pratt’s York County plant opened in 1979. It has faced challenges over the years, like any plant, including in the early 1990s when it faced closure. Today, it is Maine’s largest manufacturing facility under one roof, with nearly 20 acres in one massive building.

Pratt runs four shifts, with 1,350 employees, making it one of Maine’s largest private employers.

And it’s about to grow.

“It looks real good, with all the contracts we have,” said Lambert, a machinist who has been at the Pratt plant for 32 years. “My daughter just started working here a couple of years ago. Hopefully, she’ll be able to retire here.”

Steven Howe, the manager of public relations and communications for the North Berwick plant, also has worked there for 32 years.

“We’ve never had this kind of incredibly positive outlook for the future,” said Howe.

The engines of growth

Two new engines expected to begin production in a few years will drive that growth, said Michael Papp, general manager of the North Berwick plant. The first is for the military market, the Joint Strike Fighter engine, to power the F-35 Lightning II fighter jets for the United States and its allies. The second is the Next Generation Geared TurboFan engine, aimed at the commercial market. Both engines have key components being developed by Pratt at North Berwick.

While the Pentagon is seeking cuts in major programs to decrease costs, the Joint Strike Fighter program is one of the few that appears able to withstand budgetary assaults, said Jay Korman, a defense analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Avascent Group.

“Not to say the F-35 is not exposed, but there’s a commitment to that program that I think will outlast any tough times in defense programs,” said Korman.

Pratt’s North Berwick plant’s production is about 45 percent commercial, 45 percent military, with the remaining 10 percent going to after-market refurbishment work. That diversification is valuable, said Korman. It’s not exactly linked, he explained, but it seems that when work slows down in defense, it picks up in the commercial sector, and vice versa.

“That’s what we’re seeing now. Defense is on the precipice of decline, and orders for new commercial aircraft are going through the roof,” said Korman.

The next two years will be relatively flat, said Papp. But growth is expected to take off in 2014, as both engines enter production. He expects to hire at least 50 new workers a year for five years to handle the growth in demand, bringing on 250 more employees.

In addition, the average employee at the plant is almost 49 years old, and they are expecting at least 50 people a year to retire during that same period. So they will be hiring to deal with attrition, as well, with total numbers of about 100 hired a year for five years.

Those employees will be both engineers and machinists, said Papp. Schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts provide a steady stream of engineers. It’s harder to find skilled machinists than it had been decades earlier, however — many are hesitant to go into a field like manufacturing. Despite good pay and benefits, many have heard the stories of declining manufacturing jobs, and picture something far different from the orderly, high-tech and almost unnaturally quiet workplace that is Pratt.

“We bring high school groups in here and they’re amazed that this is manufacturing,” said Howe. “We’re not making hub caps — this is high-tech.”

Manufacturing manufacturers

To grow that machinist work force, Pratt works closely with Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, which has a machine tools program. And the company is working with York County Community College, which plans to open a new branch in Sanford.

“We hope that by January, we can have a joint SMCC/YCCC precision tool program up and running in Sanford,” said YCCC President Charles Lyons.

Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor recently mothballed its machine tools program, and the community college system is moving some of the equipment to the new Sanford program, said Lyons. In addition, Pratt & Whitney is searching its global database of equipment to find tools not being used that the college may benefit from.

Lyons said he hopes to turn out classes of eight to 10 students to start, and if the program gets funding, to ramp up to meet Pratt’s entire machinist needs within three years or so.

The growth comes with a multimillion-dollar investment in new equipment. Papp said the North Berwick plant is spending 10 times as much on capital equipment in the next few years as it did even three years ago.

Papp said Pratt is poised to grow thanks to the work the company has done in reducing costs. He’s been general manager for about a year, and had been product director for a few years before that. But he came to Pratt from the automotive sector, where margins are incredibly tight.

Papp brought that focus to the North Berwick plant, with a goal of bringing down its costs.

“If your costs are in line, the business will come [in the] long term,” said Papp.

But first, said Papp, safety and quality of work have to be tops — that’s a given.

“That’s your ticket to the game, and cost is how we win the game,” he said.

Playing the cost game

Papp said the North Berwick plant’s costs are competitive worldwide, and with other sister plants located in the southeast United States. The company keeps costs down by reducing scrap, only buying equipment when it’s necessary, and having employees who are cross-trained to perform a variety of tasks.

Maintaining that efficiency and driving home the importance of flexibility requires communication, said Papp. That can be difficult with a work force of more than 1,000, he said, but it’s critical. He uses several methods, including quarterly all-hands meetings, and having the management team constantly walking the floor, talking with employees. In addition, Papp said, he has a lunch, breakfast or dinner with every employee on his or her birthday. That offers a chance for one-on-one communication, and he gets a sense of what’s important to the worker on the floor, he said.

There’s a sort of unwritten contract between management and the workers, he said. The idea is if the employees “work hard, be flexible and do the right thing, the company will do everything we can to keep growing — be vibrant,” said Papp.

That was a fairly common theme among manufacturers in the United States for decades. But the agreements fell apart as companies moved operations offshore, or shuttered factories for a variety of reasons.

“I was a victim of that; I saw it in automotive,” said Papp. “It’s not fair.”

Korman, the defense analyst, noted that the jet engine business is one that’s highly resistant to being move offshore, and has high barriers to competition in the form of expertise and capital expenses.

“Nobody compromises on engines; nobody looks for the lowest-priced suppliers,” said Korman.

In particular, the engines for the Joint Strike Force jets, he said, are “critical, and there’s no other supplier that can build it except for those approved for that program.

“It’s U.S. jobs and it’s kind of a poster child for companies that participate,” said Korman.

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