5 minutes with Catalyst’s Petra Mitchell: on the state of manufacturing in our region

Bill O’Toole  April 2, 2019  Latest NewsManufacturing

In an era when Pittsburgh’s old steel mills are rapidly becoming apartments and movie studios, it’s easy to feel like our city’s manufacturing and industrial heritage is long gone.

But local manufacturing expert Petra Mitchell says that while these sectors are diminished, they are far from extinct. And local companies are hiring.

“I think it would surprise people to know the diversity of the kinds of manufacturers that we have in our region,” Mitchell says. “We have companies that serve almost every industry.”

Mitchell is the CEO of Catalyst Connection, a nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for small-scale manufacturers all over Southwest Pennsylvania. The work gives her a unique perspective on sectors of the local economy that are often overlooked. “We know lots of companies that have been around more than 50 years,” she says. Mitchell notes that many of the companies Catalyst currently collaborates with were once totally dependent on their place in the supply chain for Pittsburgh’s iconic mid-century industries like steel, glass and aluminum.

Today, Ace Wire Spring & Form Co. in McKeesport, founded in 1938, makes components for motorcycles, fences and medical devices. Oberg Industries in Butler County, founded in 1948, makes precision parts for airplanes and automobiles — and also for ink cartridges. “The companies that are still here,” Mitchell says, “are the ones that have successfully diversified into other industries.” Likewise, the Catalyst portfolio has morphed from the old economy into the new.

Mitchell points to RE2, a robotics company based in Lawrenceville that creates robotic arms and has won numerous government contracts to adapt its technology to exploration and rescue work.

“They’re really one of our stars,” she says.

From her perspective, the problem in our region is not that the manufacturing companies have gone away. It’s that prospective workers don’t know these employers exist or they lack the skills to take advantage of the many job opportunities these companies offer. It’s a persistent theme that’s central to Catalyst’s advocacy and capacity building. According to a 2016 Catalyst Connection report, manufacturing employment in the Pittsburgh region dropped by nearly five percent between 2011 and 2016, even as manufacturing sales rose year after year. But not because jobs weren’t available. Of the 111 companies interviewed for that report, 92 percent said a lack of workers is negatively affecting their bottom line.

While Catalyst’s mandate has traditionally been to assist established manufacturers with fewer than 500 workers per location find local partners and talent, this month the organization will launch a new program aimed at companies in more embryonic stages of development.

On April 12, Catalyst will hold the first session of its Maker-to-Manufacturing (M2M) Workshop Series. Hosted at the Lenape Technical School near in Ford City, the day-long event will give startups and small businesses a chance to network with experts and learn about micro-grants available through the M2M program. The goal of the event, Mitchell says, is “to really focus on the smaller manufacturers, give them some special love and attention.”

Interested entrepreneurs can register here.

Whether the project is the M2M series, an economic report or a video made by local middle schoolers, Mitchell says her overriding goal is to change they way Pittsburghers think about manufacturing. Rather than a remnant of the region’s past, Catalyst’s wide and diverse range of partners proves it’s a vital part of our present — and future.

“We make products that go into almost everything that you need in your daily life,” Mitchell says. “Manufacturing is a vibrant, growing sector of our community.”


Students watch the progress of a 3D printer in Carnegie Mellon University’s Additive Manufacturing for Engineers course. Photo by Harry Funk.