Cultivating Talent

Rural manufacturers work to attract skilled workers close to home

Posted on Jan 15, 2020 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Most manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin say their company’s financial health is strong, and more than two-thirds plan to modernize their facilities in 2020, according to the NEW Manufacturing Alliance’s 2020 Vitality Index.

Yet, almost 75 percent are also concerned about finding the workers they need. This is especially true for manufacturers in rural Wisconsin.

Combine retirements with the loss of young talent to brain drain, and then pair that with company expansions and a need for more tech-savvy workers in manufacturing, and “the crux of the matter is there’s just not enough people,” says Ann Franz, executive director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance. “In urban areas, we’re complaining that there aren’t enough people. Can you imagine if you’re living in Peshtigo?”

Some rural communities see the challenge and are working on it.

In December, “PBS NewsHour” aired a report showing more millennials are starting to reverse the brain drain trend by moving back to rural areas. Reasons include the cost of living, lifestyle and ability to build opportunities.

Nancy Smith, executive director of the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce, finds that report encouraging. She says a national study by Headwaters Economics shows rural counties with economies based heavily in recreation are seeing more growth than those that aren’t.

“Looking at the big picture, we know we need to set ourselves apart, right? So, destination branding is vital in order to stand out in a highly competitive market,” Smith says.

Last January, the chamber launched its “Find Your Wild Side” campaign focused on the county’s recreational assets including the Wolf River, which carries a U.S. Wild and Scenic designation. Smith says it offers some of the best whitewater rafting in the Midwest.

The county is working to reach millennials by pushing more information out on social media, hosting a selfie contest and making videos featuring young entrepreneurs.

“The whole point is to find out what sets us apart,” Smith says. “I think some communities think, ‘Oh, we have to compete with the big cities,’ but that’s never going to happen.”

Instead, they can highlight what’s special: a lower cost of living, affordable housing, less commuting time and therefore more leisure time, nearby recreation and a greater sense of community, she says.

Dennis Heling, chief economic development officer for Shawano County Economic Progress Inc., says he hears businesses tell him nearly every day that they need workers.

“And I think it’s not as simple as just saying we’re losing people,” Heling says. “I think we’re also not gaining as many people as we need.”

Part of the problem is that young people often aren’t aware of the manufacturing careers that are available. To keep the future workforce in rural communities, it’s vital to let young people know about opportunities, Heling says.

High school programs, including the Inspire New North career platform, that focus on highlighting manufacturing jobs and the skills needed for them can help.

The county has also been addressing issues important for drawing workers. This includes working with developers on strategies to make more housing options available and improving broadband capacity for households and businesses. Heling says this is necessary to give workers and businesses the connectivity they need.

Rural advantage

Timothy Tumanic, president of J&R Machine, says the company’s Shawano location poses a challenge, as the small city is more removed from population centers like the Fox Valley or Green Bay. But he also believes rural communities have a built-in advantage in terms of work ethic.

“And that’s one thing that we have in a lot of your rural areas,” Tumanic says. “Wisconsin is a farming state. A lot of kids were brought up on farms. They’ve seen their fathers and brothers work. They know the work ethic.”

J&R’s recruitment strategy has been to invest in the local schools and find new workers with those desirable soft skills. The company has invested $200,000 in programs at Shawano and Bonduel high schools, setting up two CNC labs and supporting programs annually. Tumanic says this helps budget-strapped schools add manufacturing resources.

J&R works with students from those programs, bringing them in their junior year to do cleanup work. As they get older, the company offers some full-time summer jobs, leading to possible employment after graduation. Most of the 36 employees working for J&R were cultivated by working with the local high schools.

“Our average age on the shop floor is 28 years old,” Tumanic says. “Our employees were homegrown, and it’s just a model that’s worked. Once you get a good guy, you keep him, you pay him, and you keep him for life.”

Working with partners in the community also can help provide solutions, Franz says. For example, NEWMA has a task force in the Marinette area focused on finding solutions to the workforce shortage there.

“We have alliance members that have participated in Internship Draft Day (in Green Bay) and have been able to get some great interns, but then the interns come to Marinette County and they’re like, ‘What’s there to do?’” Franz says.

In response, the alliance has worked with the Marinette-Menominee Chamber of Commerce and its young professionals’ group, Wave, to provide onboarding tours for interns. The events allow them to network with people from the area who show them the cool places to go.

“Hopefully by having them have a better experience with the community, they’re going to be more apt to be interested in coming back for full-time, permanent employment,” Franz says.

A statewide issue

The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Foundation sees the challenge as well. Its Future Wisconsin project included six town hall discussions on rural Wisconsin, ending with the Future Wisconsin Summit in Madison in December. The discussions focused on finding solutions to the workforce shortage and the growing divide between rural and urban areas.

Two of these town hall sessions were held in November at Waupaca Foundry in Waupaca and Ariens Co. in Brillion.

“Everyone is having the same challenge,” says Mike Nikolai, CEO of Waupaca Foundry. “And it was really talking about what ideas we can do to get the workforce and where are some of the gaps people see?”

Those areas of improvement include finding more impassioned people and developing a stronger technical curriculum in the schools.

“When you look at attracting new technical talent, because of our rural workforce, what we’ve learned is we need to get them at an earlier and earlier age,” Nikolai says. “So, we’ve been now promoting high school co-ops and then also job shadowing.”

In addition, the company is looking at how to identify kids within local school districts who have the potential to become engineers or technical electricians. One of the company’s bigger initiatives has been Foundry in a Box, in which kids as young as 4 years old are introduced to metal casting.

Nikolai says foundry jobs have tough physical conditions, so the company has invested in improving the workplace, including areas such as temperature management and stress levels. Technology and robots could provide some solutions, he says.

Waupaca Foundry is addressing attraction and retention in multiple ways, including modernizing plants, adding facilities in areas with high unemployment (such as its new cleaning and finishing facility in Ironwood, Mich.), collaborating with and investing in education, and offering part-time positions to both fill gaps and allow more flexible schedules.

Part of the solution also calls for a more skilled and higher-paid workforce, with more roles in areas such as electrical, IT and engineering, Nikolai says. This means the company must work closely with tech schools and universities.

While automation can reduce the overall headcount, “the goal is to continue to make it a better workplace,” Nikolai says. “Because through these tough unemployment times, we have struggled with that, and if you keep making it a better place, we’re going to get a better workforce.”

Expanding opportunities

Billie Jo Emmer, human resource generalist for Ornua, which produces Kerrygold dairy products, says the Hilbert location of the Ireland-based company has a strong growth outlook. It’s expanding its facility this year with additional warehousing and cooling space and hiring about 36 more workers — if it can find them.

“I’ve always said if we wanted to just literally fill every spot with a body, we could do that within two weeks’ time, because we definitely have enough people that are applying,” Emmer says. “But they are the ones that have a new job every two or three months, and you can tell just by looking at their resume that they just do nothing but job hop.”

Being in a rural location in Calumet County adds to the challenge, Emmer says. The company knows it must compete to attract and retain workers, including offering better pay, benefits and work-life balance. Ornua recently implemented a new quarterly bonus program with a stronger percentage than its previous yearly program and increased its base starting wages.

Steve Servais, vice president of human resources for Ariens Co. in Brillion, says the company has about 150 openings, and it draws about 60 to 70 percent of its employees from Green Bay, the Fox Cities and surrounding areas.

“That’s challenge No. 1 for us, is to entice a worker to drive 20 or 30 minutes a day back and forth,” Servais says.

Differentiating the company as a long-standing, family-owned company that makes cool products helps. Ideally, though, Ariens would like to drive that commuter percentage down and create more of a pipeline in Brillion, Servais says.

The company is actively working to do just that through outreach to groups such as veterans and investing strongly in the Brillion School District’s STEM program.

Ariens is also redeveloping the Brillion Iron Works site. The long-range plan could include health care, day care and residential options, Servais says. It’s also modernizing Plant 1, where its lawn and garden equipment is made.

That transformation means the plant is much different than the one where a millennial’s father might have worked. “The floors are shiny; the ceilings are white; the lighting is bright; the air is clean,” Servais says. “I think it’s helping retain our workers.”

The company has also implemented a successful employee referral program that offers a $1,500 bonus for those who find new employees. As most turnover occurs in the first 90 days, Ariens has encouraged hiring managers to implement periodic check-ins with new employees.

“We’re also really trying to get diligent in offering learning and development opportunities for our production workforce,” Servais says. “That goes a
long way for that workforce to see that they can actually come here and grow through different career paths.”

The company uses its Ariens Academy, a cutting-edge service school and classroom environment, to train both professional and production employees. It offers several classes and hands-on training modules.

These efforts, as well as improvements and modernizations to Ariens’ facilities, have led retention at the company to improve from a 50 percent-plus turnover rate to about the high 20s, Servais says.

“The biggest thing for us, it really comes down to the ability to attract the right workforce,” Servais says. “Then, once we get that right workforce, you want to keep them.”