Former auto workers now make human parts

CLEVELAND - If Cleveland is going to dig its way out of the doldrums, manufacturing may be the surprising solution.

There's a stirring now in the Rust Belt, and it can be felt at places like Astro Manufacturing, where the jobs and job orders are on the rise.

"I think our outlook right now is very good," Rich Peterson, a vice president at Astro Manufacturing, told CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds. "We went through the recession, dipped a bit in 2009, recovered very strongly last year and this year looks even better."

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They make finely tuned parts for customers who increasingly come from the bio-medical market. It's an emerging economic powerhouse which this city -- with its world famous Cleveland Clinic -- is hoping to harness.

How important is the medical business to Peterson's business? "I think right now, it's about 50 percent of what we do," he said. That's about $25 million this year -- a five-fold increase since 2003.

With the baby boomer generation demanding artificial replacements for aging sockets and joints, manufacturers see an expanding market whose needs they can meet.

Gone are the grimy factories - replaced by pristine workplaces where exiles from the auto industry put their skills back to work.

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Workers who used to make parts for engines and transmissions are now making spinal implants and artificial heart pumps.

Machinist Don Perish, who worked 17 years in the auto industry, is among them. "I'm working 55 hours a week, 10 hours a day and a half-a-day on Saturday. I really can't complain about that."

His pay now is about what it was at his old job. While he's optimistic, the managers here worry about three things: foreign competition, the lingering image of manufacturing as a dying industry and a potentially crippling shortage of skilled craftsman like Perish.

At Astro Manufacturing, they've been looking for 30 new workers for a long time - three years.

Cleveland has a fight on its hands. A recent report for the U.S. Conference of Mayors said peak employment would not return here for another decade.

But for now, at least the sounds of a comeback can be heard.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.