Supermetal has put out the "help wanted" sign, but not without a degree of apprehension.
There should be no shortage of applicants. Since the steel fabrication plant began operations almost 14 months ago, there has been no shortage of interest. The Catawba region - Chester, Lancaster and York counties - has the highest unemployment rate of any South Carolina region at 14.7 percent as of September.
Supermetal officials are concerned whether they will get applicants with the necessary skills and experience to take the plant to the next level of production. Supermetal needs welders, fitters and inspectors.
"When people apply, I ask them, 'What can you do?'" said Jeffrey Pate, Supermetal's vice president and general manager. "The closest thing they say is, 'I can drive a forklift.' That's really not a skill and there is only so much need here to move material."
Supermetal anticipated this round of hiring will be more difficult than its start-up period.
Nationally, welders are retiring at a rate twice the speed of people entering the profession, according to the American Welding Society.
"There is a shortage because of the image that it's a dirty, dangerous job," said Cindy Weihl, spokeswoman for the society. "There also has been the push by parents to send their children to college. With the recession, however, more people have gone to welding schools."
Locally, and in South Carolina, there is a gap between people seeking jobs and the skills employers need.
"Unfortunately, this is typical," said Kelly Steinhipler, spokeswoman for Ready SC, the state program that works with the state's technical colleges to prepare South Carolina's workforce to meet employers' needs.
"We see this across the state as the quality skills present are not always a match" with employer needs, Steinhipler said.
Locally, "it's an ongoing issue," particularly in the manufacturing sector, said Christine Turner, manager of the Rock Hill office for SC Works.
To find qualified workers, Supermetal is working with ReadySC, York Technical College and SCWorks. It also is starting its own in-house training program.
Ed Hopkins was recently hired as Supermetal's training supervisor. He brings 40 years of experience to the plant.
"Attitude is the key," he said. "You have to be willing to learn, willing to learn the Supermetal way."
He said the Supermetal way means not only welding steel to meet structural specifications, but "visual welding." How the weld looks is important to the customer, Hopkins said.
"It may look like an old piece of steel, but it is a piece of artwork with your name on it," he said.
Most of the plant's production is for the Canadian mining industry, Pate said. As production has increased, so has the number of errors, flagged with red tags. The plant is working to reduce the amount of work that must be redone.
Anton Brown, one of the experienced workers training newcomers, said, "You have to get it right the first time. There is no time for error. You have to take the time to be safe."
Supermetal has about 84 employees - about 60 more than it anticipated in its first year of operation, Pate said. The goal is to have 125 employees by March and 150 by March 2013. The added workforce should allow the plant to up its output from 100 tons of steel a week to between 500 and 1,000 tons, depending on the number of jobs.
Officials with SCReady and York Tech have met with Supermetal to assist with its in-house training, as well as looking at ways the technical school's welding program can help the company.
Attending welding school costs money, which obviously is a problem for the unemployed. Entry-level welding courses take between 60 to 90 days, Steinhipler said. Higher level certifications take longer, she added.
"That's where the rub is. There is no guarantee of a job," if you take the courses, she said.
Sid Valentine, associate vice president for York Technical College's Industrial Engineering Technologies division, said people looking for training should investigate financial aid.
As for Supermetal's needs, "we will absolutely do what we have to do" to assist them, Valentine said.
How to apply
To apply for positions at Supermetal, go to: SCtechjobs.com