Freeport company Oberg manufactures components used across industries
Oberg Industries is a company hidden in plain sight.
You won't find its name stamped on the items sold in a grocery store. But if you shaved this morning, used your credit card, replaced the batteries in a flashlight or opened a can of Iron City beer, you handled something that the Buffalo Township company helped make.
“There probably is not two hours of your life when you didn't touch an Oberg component,” said Neil Ashbaugh, training and talent development specialist.
To be clear — Oberg does not make razor blades, batteries, credit cards or beer. It makes the tools that make those products, as well as sophisticated medical devices and drilling components for the energy industry.
The Butler company has evolved during more than six decades, surviving economic recessions and a widening “skills gap,” which have caused problems for its peers throughout the country.
The tool and die shop that Donald Oberg founded in 1948 now is an international outfit with $130 million in sales and more than 800 employees. At a time when many manufacturers are cutting jobs, Oberg is expanding. Sales rose 10 percent last year, and the company grew its workforce by 60 employees. It is looking to fill 24 open positions.
The growth Oberg is experiencing occurs six years after the company found itself struggling amid an economic crash and searching for a new path forward.
Before the Great Recession, the auto industry accounted for a quarter of Oberg's sales, and construction was 15 percent. Both sectors were hit hard during the economic crisis as consumers stopped buying new vehicles and home building came to a halt.
Oberg had to evolve.
“It was a little bit unnerving, of course,” said David Getty, Oberg's manager of corporate communications. “Everybody was wondering what was coming next.”
The company focused more intensely on markets that demanded high-quality products and were unlikely to seek suppliers outside the United States, where manufacturing standards were less strict.
Oberg shifted its focus to health care, the aerospace industry and the energy sector. Stryker, Medtronic and Halliburton are among its customers.
But building up business took time, and Oberg had to manage short-term financial pressures. In 2008-09, Oberg cut 10 percent of its workforce through layoffs, retirement and attrition. It closed a stamping plant in Arizona and employees at all levels took pay cuts.
There was one expense that Oberg refused to eliminate. Started in 1950, Oberg's apprenticeship program has existed nearly as long as the company. Even in tough times, Oberg officials considered the program key to developing a workforce capable of running highly technical machinery. If it were to promise its customers top-notch quality, Oberg needed to invest in the people making it.
“We committed to it so we have the right qualified people to make the things that these companies demand,” Getty said.
Oberg can't afford to have poorly trained personnel using a $750,000 machine. On the shop floor one recent Tuesday, machinists stood behind computer monitors as milling machines the size of steam rollers cut delicate orthopedic devices no larger than an index finger.
These are precise machines that leave no room for error, Ashbaugh said. It only makes sense that Oberg would invest in training the people who use them.
“You're not going to put a 16-year-old in a new Porsche,” Ashbaugh said.
Oberg has “a phenomenal apprenticeship program” that is a model for the rest of the nation, said James Wall, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.
Manufacturers have complained that the nation's skills gap makes it difficult to find qualified workers. A recent Manufacturing Institute study found that 67 percent of companies reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers, and more than half anticipated the shortage to grow worse in the next three to five years.
But while other firms have complained, Oberg is doing something about it by training people from within, Wall said.
“If every company in the U.S. followed their model, we'd have a much stronger economy,” Wall said.
Oberg spends about $200,000 per apprentice, covering salary, benefits and training, which typically lasts about three years. There are 39 apprentices.
Oberg's investment in employee training is what attracted Joe Perona, 26, of Spring Church, who enrolled in Oberg's apprenticeship program in September.
“I knew they were going to teach me what I wanted to learn,” Perona said. “They pretty much give you the career.”
Having a pipeline of talent has helped Oberg seize its opportunities when business ramped up after the recession, Ashbaugh said. Demand for medical products, for example, has taken off and accounts for more than 15 percent of Oberg's business, up from 5 percent before the recession.
Oberg is looking to bring people into the fold. Ashbaugh works with area high schools, vocational programs and guidance counselors to recruit young talent. Ashbaugh said he's even considered reaching out to junior high schools.
Oberg is not immune to the pressures facing American manufacturers, Ashbaugh said. But it won't sit around waiting for someone else to alleviate them.
“We're not going to sit around and complain anymore,” he said. “Enough complaining. We're doing.”
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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