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Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Grapple With How to Improve Their Economic Fortunes

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For now, the Fed appears to be sticking with the standard approach of gradually raising rates to ward off inflation. But the United States may be about to run an experiment on the effects of a high-pressure economy whether Mr. Powell wants to or not. The combination of tax cuts and government spending increases is adding fuel to an economy already burning hot. The Fed’s most recent projections estimate that the unemployment rate will fall to 3.5 percent next year.

If that happens, the beneficiaries could be people like Mike Steffel. Mr. Steffel, 39, grew up near here and never went to college, instead finding work in various low-paying factory jobs. In one position at a local manufacturer, he found himself drawn to the work done by skilled toolmakers.

“I saw what the journeymen were doing there, and I thought that was something that I’d like to be doing as a career,” Mr. Steffel said. “You have this raw stock of steel that’s just sitting there, and making it into something useful, I like the thought of that.”

Eventually, Mr. Steffel saw an ad from APT saying it was hiring and would pay for classes at the local community college. Mr. Steffel works at APT as an apprentice during the two-year certificate program, and is committed to staying a year after it ends. In return, he gets training as a toolmaker, a skill that could ultimately earn him more than $70,000 a year with overtime. And the skills he is gaining are less easily replaced by robots.

“This is the career that I have chosen,” Mr. Steffel said. “I’m not going to get rich off it, but hopefully in the end I’ll do well.”

For Mr. Nighswander, training people like Mr. Steffel is an investment. For years, he said, he complained that the people graduating from local high schools and colleges didn’t have the skills needed. But eventually he realized that he had to tackle the problem himself.

In 2015, APT opened a training center inside its 75,000-square-foot headquarters. Every afternoon during the school year, eight to 10 students from the local high school spend two hours taking hands-on classes in electrical engineering, machining, practical math and other subjects. The students earn school credit, and many also work at APT after hours.

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