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Air Brake job windfall signals comeback for manufacturing in Jefferson County

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Jefferson County has a vast pool of workers with manufacturing experience eager to work — a trend highlighted by the 800 applicants who applied for 55 job openings at New York Air Brake in Watertown over the past two weeks.

Cheryl M. Mayforth, director of the Workplace employment agency in Watertown, said Tuesday the workers can be a catalyst for economic growth in Jefferson County, which the U.S. Census Bureau recently named the fastest growing county in the state. In 2012, the county’s active work force climbed from approximately 49,000 to 54,000 people.

Mrs. Mayforth said the job openings at Air Brake, which is interviewing candidates, will take a small bite out of the roughly 600 manufacturing jobs lost during the national recession that struck in 2008.

About 600 candidates applied for 50 production jobs at the company, while about 200 applied for five warehouse positions. Workers will be paid up to $15 an hour.

Applicants included employed manufacturing workers and unemployed candidates with experience. With unemployment in Jefferson County at 12.4 percent, there are a lot of people seeking work.

“Some of them are currently employed and looking for an increase in wages,” said Mrs. Mayforth, though she could not say how many.

Mrs. Mayforth said the high number of applicants is evidence of the pool of skilled workers manufacturers can tap into. The windfall of jobs at Air Brake was the result of its decision to close its Knorr Brake Ltd. facility in Kingston, Ontario, and manufacture locomotive braking products at its headquarters at 748 Starbuck Ave. She said she hopes the 55 jobs created mark the start of a growth trend among manufacturers here.

And that room for growth is huge. Over the course of the recession from 2008 to 2011, employers cut staff or shut their doors. Among the casualties were Brownville Specialty Paper Products, 1 Bridge St., which lost 59 jobs when it closed in 2008; Northland Motor Technologies in Watertown, 968 Bradley St., which eliminated 62 jobs in 2010; and the Covidien plant on Faichney Drive — one of Watertown’s largest manufacturers — which closed in 2011, leaving 320 jobless.

“We’re still making up for that deficit and our workforce will continue to grow,” Mrs. Mayforth said. “When businesses assess Jefferson County’s workforce, its position in between Canada and growing population, the future should look bright.”

David J. Zembiec, deputy CEO for the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, said regaining all of the manufacturing jobs lost during the recession might be unrealistic. Manufacturing in the United States has evolved greatly over the past decade as companies have managed to reduce staffs by operating more efficiently and using advanced technology. But nationally, he said, manufacturing seems to be making a comeback as companies are less willing to ship jobs overseas.

“The comeback isn’t going to be tit-for-tat because work that may have taken 10 people to do 10 years ago may be two today,” Mr. Zembiec said. “If you look at the 50 jobs (from Air Brake) compared to the several hundred lost, you can say that’s a single blip. But 50 jobs in one move is a lot.”

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