Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
It had been a long flight from Rome to New York, a perilous trip that began several months before at a train station in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. At the urging of parents who had survived Nazi concentration camps, and with only $200 and all their belongings in one bag, Maya and Naum Royberg had fled with a young daughter and other refugees on a freezing night in 1971.
They were held for hours in the train station as officials rummaged through their things, stealing precious keepsakes. When they tried to board, the train began moving before the Roybergs could climb on. They jumped, but the bag split open and all that was left of its contents was strewn on the tracks.
Crouched together in a dark corner of the train to avoid being shot as “traitors,” the young couple rode into the vast unknown, toward Vienna, then by bus to Rome.
When the plane that finally carried them across the Atlantic revealed through a tiny window the Statue of Liberty, Maya wept in relief. “Oh my God. We are in America. That was unbelievable.”
More than three decades later, tears still flow as she recalls those days and the ones that followed, when she and her husband unwittingly found their way to San Antonio, secured minimum wage jobs and an unfurnished apartment with the help of aid groups, and began to learn English and the ways of this new land.
They worked hard, saved what they could, and built a future that today represents not only their dreams come true, but a new generation as well.
Their business, Precision Group, is an industry-leading designer and manufacturer of both injection-molded plastics and tooling for all things medical, automotive, aerospace, oil and gas, electronics, and consumer markets across the country.
The Roybergs started the company with one machine in their home’s garage in Harmony Hills before moving seven years later to a rented space in the same Northside industrial park where they own a facility today.
Early on, Maya worked at Dee Howard by day, baked cookies and cakes in the evenings to bring in extra money, and kept the books for their business. Naum ran the factory, rising early and staying late. Their first employee, so eager for a job with the Roybergs, agreed to work for just food and rent money — all they could afford.
In 1990, with $160,000 in funds from a government contract they won to manufacture air-conditioned suits for soldiers, the Roybergs opened a second factory in La Feria, Texas, and later another in Reynosa, Mexico. They also added capability of off-shore mold production in China. Those moves ensured the company’s survival during an economic downturn.
Orders for their work now come from companies like Acelity (formerly KCI), Toyota, Baker Hughes, 3M, and James Avery Jewelers. At their 22,000-sq. ft. facility, built in 2004, expert toolmakers produce and repair molds and plastics using state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment with price tags in the millions of dollars.
Last year, Precision Group cleared $10 million in revenues.
Many of the 100 highly-trained employees with Precision Group today have worked for the Roybergs so long, they are considered family, Maya said, and that aspect is a significant part of their business model.
Noah Bennett started with the company when he was 12 years old. He operates one of the most complex and costly pieces of machinery at Precision, the only one of its kind in the state. Toolmaker Noe Beltran started at age 15.
Michael Pasley, who came to San Antonio from Detroit, started at Precision when the company owned only three manual machines and today is one of less than 1,000 certified laser welders in the U.S. Pasley has formed everything from bolts for the NASA space shuttle to molds for a jeweler’s cross rings.
But hiring for a manufacturing business like Precision Group doesn’t come easy.
U.S. manufacturers posted 379,000 job openings in July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s a common refrain that manufacturing companies can’t find enough skilled workers because those jobs have become more technical and workers haven’t kept up.
However, in an analysis of manufacturing employment data by economists Andrew Weaver and Paul Osterman, the problem actually lies in the fact that the manufacturing industry has become so specialized companies are looking for hyper-specific skills that few workers could be expected to have. New-hire training is also rare.
In San Antonio, more than 1 million people work in non-agricultural manufacturing jobs with wages well above the city average, according to a Texas Workforce Commission report. And the latest economic impact study (2011) showed that the industry has a $22.5 billion impact on the San Antonio economy.
But even six years ago, the San Antonio Manufacturers Association was reporting worker shortage as the sector’s greatest challenge, and the driving force behind various workforce development programs with Alamo Colleges and some area school districts.
Since 2005, Precision Group leadership has worked closely with the Department of Labor to provide instruction and on-the-job training to close these gaps through a tool and die maker apprenticeship program.
Current apprentices like Nubia Sanchez, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering from UTSA, but had little practical experience when she graduated last year, learn the trade through 8,000 hours of classroom instruction and on-the-job training with an experienced and skilled mentor. An apprentice earns an increasing wage throughout the duration of the four-year program. Maya works with JoAnn Browning, dean of the College of Engineering at UTSA, to develop the curriculum.
She’s also taking the program a step further through her Fill the Gap Foundation.
Recent high school graduates Juan Martinez, Jayden Leyva, and Hannah Granato are pursuing this new “earn while you learn” internship. They are the first students to be selected for the program at Precision.
The Department of Labor-approved internship and curriculum, developed by Maya, allows the students to work while earning an associate degree. In two years, they can decide if they wish to pursue a bachelor’s at UTSA or continue working and building skills at Precision. The Roybergs cover all the students’ tuition and salary while they are in school and working.
Maya has established a classroom within the facility where they can study and participate in online classes with Tooling U during their breaks or before and after work. “And if they have questions, they can go into the shop and talk to people,” she said. The goal is for the students to come out fully trained and ready to work.
“These are very special kids,” Maya said. “Not everybody is college-bound, so if those kids decide not to continue with a high-level engineering degree, they can apply their education here, like Michael [Pasley] and the others here. They never [went to] college, but look how bright they are. They know so much.
“But whatever they want to do, they have options.”
That’s what attracted Granato to Precision and to this male-dominated field. “It’s very diverse here,” she said. “It’s molding, it’s drafting, chemical – it’s completely different avenues … they don’t say, ‘No you need to stick to mechanical engineering.’ They are willing to help you grow. That’s why I was so eager and excited about it when they spoke at our school.”
Leyva, already a certified welder, was searching for internships as he was about to graduate high school. “Precision was everything I wanted,” he said. “I go home and I can’t wait to come back the next day.”
Maya beams with pride when she listens to Granato and Leyva. “This is a new generation coming up,” she said. “They want to work, they want to learn. They really want to be part of this life.”
To create a pipeline of these interns, Maya hopes to bring on another student every six months and plans to look at hiring displaced workers through nonprofit organizations here as well.
Back in 1977, the Roybergs were destined for the Sunshine State when they arrived in this country, a mix-up created when Naum confused Philadelphia with Florida. They knew they were headed for a city that began with “San,” but not knowing which one, a customs official chose the first city on the list that began with that name.
“We were scared because we were the only family [from their immigrant group] going to Texas,” she said, but the centralized location has worked well for their business. They brought their own families from the Soviet Union to San Antonio in 1987 and 1991.
Fast forward to this decade and the Roybergs have plenty to celebrate – their daughter has graduated from the University of Texas, and they’ve been married almost 50 years – if they had the time.
The tool and die factory hums 10 hours a day, including half days on Saturday, and the plastics side of the plant, overseen by another woman, Michaeline Womack, runs 24/7.
“We love this country,” Maya said. “When kids tell me about socialism, I say, ‘Come and talk to me, I’ll tell you what we have — we have freedom. Those people don’t.’”