On a recent Wednesday — the first of June — a series of crises being faced by consumers and business owners brought state and federal officials to our region to highlight what local businesses are doing about those crises.
Pennsylvania’s governor, one of the state’s two senators, two area congresswomen and the U.S. Commerce Secretary were all in the area to showcase business solutions happening here.
In Berks County, the crisis of baby formula shortages was front and center as Gov. Tom Wolf visited the ByHeart infant formula plant, the first federally approved formula manufacturer in the U.S. in the last 15 years. The company, which officially launched production at its Exeter facility in March, has hopes of putting a dent — albeit a small one — in a national formula shortage caused by the shutdown at an Abbott plant which produces the majority of powdered formula sold in the U.S.
Wolf said ByHeart’s facility represents a public and private partnership to address the formula shortage by bringing a new manufacturer into the market. ByHeart was awarded $1.75 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant funding for improvements to its $21.6 million facility, where every aspect of production of formula is done. The plant is only the fourth end-to-end formula manufacturing site in the U.S.
The same day, in Montgomery County, U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo toured American Keg Company in Pottstown to highlight supply chain issues plaguing many businesses. Their visit included a roundtable discussion of labor force and worker shortage issues as well.
American Keg Company prides itself on not only being the only keg manufacturer in the U.S., but also using only American-made steel to do it. So when supply chain problems that have plagued the nation’s businesses during COVID disrupted steel supply, the firm risked a shutdown.
To make matters worse, the locally owned firm had just completed a $6 million expansion. “Can you imagine, investing that much money to expand your business only to have your supply line cut?” said American Keg CEO Paul Czachor.
“This is something we’ve been dealing with across the country,” Raimondo said during a press conference that followed the June 1 tour of the facility. “During the pandemic, some of the suppliers started cutting off some of the smaller customers.”
Raimondo was able to act as a “matchmaker” and connect American Keg with the CEO of North American Stainless, and a regular supply was re-established.
And about those worker shortages: Raimondo sat down for a roundtable in Pottstown to hear about American Keg’s success hiring employees that others might not consider. Czachor said the firm participates in second chance programs that assist workers who may have prison records or other drawbacks to employment.
Czachor said he has worked with programs that teach the basics to getting and keeping a job, and with those supports, he has seen success. “These people just need a chance, and they’re hungry,” Czachor said. Those given a second chance by American Keg “are some of our most valuable employees and several of them have the keys to the place,” said Mike Habe, the site manager.
And one more crisis: The semiconductor shortage affecting many industries was addressed by Raimondo as she visited Vishay Intertechnology in Malvern, a local manufacturer of semiconductors. Accompanied in Chester County by U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, Raimondo said the U.S. must re-establish global leadership in semiconductor manufacturing. Houlahan and Raimondo discussed the Bipartisan Innovation Act which aims to further boost America’s manufacturing sector and global competitiveness.
A second workforce roundtable discussion focused on how business and education officials can support a pipeline of students whose skills meet the needs of manufacturing at Vishay and other firms.
Taken together, the visits to this region on June 1 offered an impressive lineup as witness to local successes. The nation’s consumers and producers have a number of challenges right now, and our region showcased in just one day how local businesses are rising to meet those challenges. Imagine if a local enterprise could just take a run at bringing gas prices down … we’d be at the top of everyone’s list.