Desiree Rucks had never worked in plastics.
But after stints at Pier 1 Imports and Kroger, Rucks decided to try a job in manufacturing, working for Klein Tools in Mansfield. Now, after two years of making pliers and screwdrivers, Rucks can’t see herself doing anything else.
“I know when I’m supposed to be here. I know when I’m going home and my kid knows I’m going to be there for her marching band and for athletics,” Rucks said, adding she likes the stability and hopes to work for Klein for the rest of her career. “I absolutely love it here. I feel like I found my niche.”
Rucks is one of thousands of workers who have gone to work in North Texas factories over the past decade, building everything from hand tools and oil industry machinery to fighter jets and SUVs.
Despite concerns over a shift of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and other countries, the Fort Worth-Arlington area has added almost 10,000 manufacturing jobs since 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
These jobs pay better than positions in other sectors that have been growing locally, such as warehouse workers or hotel clerks. The average wage for manufacturing jobs in Tarrant County has jumped 80 percent since 2007 to $34.44 an hour, according to the BLS, though that includes not just production workers but also engineers and administrative positions.
That’s almost $10 more an hour than the average private-sector worker, who makes $25.23 an hour, and similar to nurses who average $34.79 an hour. It’s also substantially more than what a construction worker makes, $14.35 an hour on average, or a warehouse packer, who averages $11.64 an hour.
Klein said its starting pay is around $13 an hour and ranges up to the high $20s on the plant floor, similar to assemblers throughout the area, who average between $14 and $17 an hour.
“They are jobs that someone without a college degree, if they are committed to the work and have good basic skills, they can make a very good wage and support their families,” said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Bank.
As a result, job seekers are flocking to manufacturing companies with openings. More than 3,000 North Texans showed up at a job fair held by Lockheed Martin last month where the defense giant hired more than 800 people to work on its F-35 production line, some of the most coveted factory jobs in the region.
The company plans to hold another job fair Aug. 29 to hire for positions such as structural assemblers and aircraft mechanics as it ramps up production of the new fighter.
Although the loss of manufacturing jobs has been a concern nationwide in recent years, manufacturing has rebounded locally and makes up close to 10 percent of all jobs in Tarrant County. Although the number has yet to reach pre-2009 recession levels, more than 95,000 jobs in Tarrant County are in the manufacturing sector, up 3 percent from last year.
“I was happy to see (manufacturing employment) turned positive recently,” said Cheryl Abbott, regional economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s growing at the same rates as the total economy.”
Manufacturing output is also growing faster each month, and employers are hiring more workers or increasing work hours for existing employees, according to the Dallas Fed’s monthly manufacturing outlook.
“Exports are growing right now and it has to do with the U.S. dollar falling in value so it’s cheaper to buy U.S. goods,” said Jesus Canas, senior business economist at the Dallas Fed.
In North Texas, people typically need little to no prior training to get a job on a plant floor. Often employers like Klein and Lockheed Martin are willing to provide on-the-job training for low-level positions.
As production floors add more automation and 3-D printing, manufacturing jobs involve more than monotonous tasks such as putting widgets in boxes, said Dave Malenfant, director of the center for supply chain innovation at Texas Christian University .
“People will have to be more computer savvy and analytical, and those are the kinds of skill sets that are exciting,” Malenfant said.
At Klein Tools, the company has expanded to 450 workers and added on to its Mansfield plant as it tries to keep up with demand for its pliers and screwdrivers across the world.
While many American companies have shifted production of such commodity products overseas, Klein made the decision in 2010 to keep its jobs in the U.S. and shift work from an aging facility in Illinois to a new facility in Mansfield.
“Our legacy is we are U.S. manufacturing,” chairman Tom Klein Sr. said. Shifting production overseas “was not a consideration.”
Klein said Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, low business taxes and a good workforce brought the company to Mansfield. The company also received almost $3 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund and receives an additional $500,000 annually from the city of Mansfield as part of an economic incentive package.
It added a second plant in Mansfield in 2014 and expects to grow to almost 600 workers in the next few years.
But finding qualified production operators has become increasingly difficult as more manufacturers move into the area. Klein said it has ramped up its in-house training programs in the past two years to provide the skills its employees need to work in its plants.
“We do a lot of promotions from within, developing the low-level employees that come through the door,” vice president of manufacturing Earl Jewett said, noting that Klein faces a competitive market trying to attract workers.
“Just drive around this industrial park and there are signs for operators everywhere now. Everybody is hiring.”