Tony Santos found his calling at PTR, the United Nations of ironworking.
Tony Santos struts around the 100,000-square-foot factory in Port Richmond, proudly showing off the machinery as though he's giving me a tour of his own home.
"You see this jig here?" he asks, pointing to a giant steel contraption used to fabricate parts for recycling machines. "Before I built this, they only made one piece per day. Now they build eight pieces or more every day."
Sparks fly from nearby welders. The smell of old grease and fresh paint lingers in the chilly air. The sound of crashing metal echoes through the cavernous plant.
As he escorts me down the assembly line, Santos points to several other jigs he designed for family-owned PTR Baler and Compactor, the largest manufacturer of vertical balers in the world.
"I made this place efficient," he says.
When Santos, 58, started as a general helper at PTR 35 years ago, he was a high school dropout from Salinas, Puerto Rico, who could barely speak English.
"I remember one of the guys saying, 'Hey, give me a clamp,'" Santos recalls. "I thought to myself, 'What the hell is a clamp?'"
There was a time when manufacturing jobs were a popular gateway to the middle class.
When Santos joined PTR in 1973, there were around 250,000 factory jobs in Philadelphia. Those without conventional book smarts could find a job with good wages and excellent benefits. The local ironworkers union, of which Santos is a member, represented more than 3,500 workers then. But that was before everyone was expected to earn a college degree, before computers became commonplace and before industrial jobs were shipped overseas en masse.
Today there are around 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia. The local ironworkers union has only around 600 members, and 120 of them work for PTR.
Among them are a dozen native Albanians, a few Moroccans and a pair of Cubans, among others. At least eight different languages can be heard on the factory floor.
Santos, who's planning to retire in two years, will collect around $5,000 per month from his pension.
"I never would have imagined this life," he says. "This company has been very good to me."
We detour from the assembly line so Santos can show me the first jig he designed and built more than 20 years ago. He leads me to a pair of industrial drill presses. He grabs a strip of plastic, slides it under the press and explains how mounts lock the plastic into place so the drill operator can punch hole after hole without stopping to measure.
"I built this during overtime," Santos says. "My supervisor said, 'If it's good for the company, go do it.'"
Santos left Puerto Rico in 1968 because he needed a job and stumbled into a position at PTR, where his wife worked as a secretary.
As time went on he encouraged friends and family to apply for jobs with PTR. Now he has two cousins, numerous friends and his niece's boyfriend working alongside him. His son did temp work there during a break from college.