Timothy Tumanic of J&R Machine knows it’s tough going out there for manufacturers looking for skilled workers.
He often hears other business owners talking about it and while he admits there’s a shortage of qualified workers, the Shawano CNC machining shop hasn’t placed a help wanted ad in 10 years.
“We haven’t had a shortage,” Tumanic says. “We’ve worked hard to build a strong culture here and also built a great partnership with the local school.”
J&R Machine isn’t alone among New North manufacturers when it comes to developing innovative practices and strategies to recruit and retain skilled workers. Whether it’s great pay and benefits, creating a workplace culture that employees embrace or forging solid relationships with high schools and technical colleges, companies are finding ways to fill their open manufacturing jobs — and then keep them from leaving.
In a 2015 survey released by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, 70 percent of businesses reported having trouble finding qualified workers, up from 53 percent in 2014. Fifty-two percent of respondents said a lack of qualified workers was the top reason they were having trouble.
Wisconsin isn’t alone as manufacturers across the country are also facing a shortage when it comes to skilled workers. During the next decade nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will come open, but an estimated 2 million of those will go unfilled, according to a study by the Manufacturing Institute.
The shortage comes from a combination of a shrinking labor pool — there are fewer people entering the workforce than those leaving due to retirement — fewer teens and young adults showing an interest in the manufacturing industry and a growing economy that has companies busier than in recent memory.
“We’re growing, but we can still find the workers we need. It just takes awhile,” says Bob Gafvert, the business development manager for Nicolet Plastics, which is located in the small Oconto County town of Mountain. “For us, our physical location — Mountain — is another barrier we have to overcome. We address that by telling applicants that some people will drive hours to vacation here and you can just walk out the door and be in these great surroundings.”
Nicolet Plastics stepped up its recruitment efforts by adding staff in human resources, increasing signage on its plant and advertising at area basketball games to help get the word out about the company and the opportunities available.
“We did this cool thing with an Old West wanted sign saying we were looking for workers and if anyone — whether they are an employee or not — refers someone to us that’s hired, they get an award,” Gafvert says.
The low unemployment rate has also made finding workers a challenge, says Mike VanderZanden, president and CEO of Amerequip Corp., a Kiel-based provider of design and manufacturing services to OEMs.
“I say we interview five people for every one we hire. We’re able to find people; it’s just taking longer than it did in the past,” he says. “To us, it’s not really about the skills — we can train on those — but rather, does the person have the right character? Will he or she fit with our company’s values?”
He says the interview process is extensive and “we don’t just hire anyone with a pulse,” adding that most new employees at Amerequip quit a current job to join the company.
Tammy Flora of Masters Gallery Food Inc. in Plymouth agrees companies need to take their time in the hiring process. “Some younger adults unfortunately don’t have a lot of soft skills and don’t know for example how to work with a team,” she says.
That’s one area where Masters Gallery spends its training dollars. “It’s not just about technical skills,” Flora says.
VanderZanden says Amerequip aims to create a family environment and a positive culture where people want to come to work.
“We’re trying to be an employer of choice in the community. We do things here for the right reasons and don’t treat people as just a number,” he says. “We firmly believe that doing the right things will lead to better bottom lines.”
For example, VanderZanden says while other businesses cut back on Christmas parties or family events, his company was adding them.
“We do a lot of special recognition celebrations and hand out gift cards to employees so they know they are valued. We do birthday and anniversary cards. All that little stuff that adds up to a lot,” he says. “We also recognize the importance of family and don’t want our employees to miss out on things at school, for example, because of work.”
The company also redid its bathrooms and lunch room and added air-conditioning in the shop. “It’s a place where people want to be,” VanderZanden says.
In Sheboygan County, where most companies are hiring and unemployment is low, Masters Gallery looks to set itself apart from the competition with an average wage of $19 across the plant, Flora says.
“We also have a good benefits package,” she says, adding the company has some unique offerings including profit sharing, providing admission for all employees and their families to the Sheboygan County Fair, a state-of-the-art Center for Health and Wellness and personal finance counseling for employees.
Flora says culture also plays a big role in attracting and retaining employees. The company is part of the Good Jobs program, which is a third-party, verified organization that lets Masters Gallery applicants learn what’s unique about the company and some reasons why they might want to work there.
“Being part of that program definitely drives some referrals,” Flora says. “Our current employees are also great at talking about what a great place this is to work. Word-of-mouth is huge.”
Growing their own
J&R Machine has partnered for years with Shawano Community High School, including partnering with the local job center to put in CNC machine equipment and create an in-school lab, Tumanic says. Each year, the company takes two juniors for a program that teaches them the basics of CNC machining.
“They start from the bottom up and when they graduate, if they want to join us and we think it’s a good fit, we’ll take them on,” he says. “We’re definitely growing our own workforce. It’s a feeder system for us.”
It shows. The average age of an employee at J&R Machine is 28.
Tumanic initially got the idea for reaching out to high school students when his son and some friends joined the company after graduation about 10 years ago. He found them to be great employees.
“It was literally an ‘a-ha’ moment and a way to grow our workforce by reaching out to students,” Tumanic says. “Most of those guys are still here.”
The company also tries to get in front of parents by holding a machine shop open house during parent-teacher conferences, Tumanic says.
“Parents play a big role and if we can show them that this is a good career and that today’s machine shops are modern facilities filled with technology, it can go a long way,” he says.
Once employees join J&R Machine, they tend to stick around, with the company having a turnover rate of less than 5 percent. Tumanic tries to foster a family feeling at work by offering an in-house workout facility, a lounge with DirecTV and sponsoring teams in local recreation leagues.
“We also have a benefits package that is competitive with the Valley and Green Bay,” he says. “Our goal is to get them to stay in the community and thrive and not go elsewhere.”
“We’re involved with local schools and do job shadows, apprenticeships, whatever we can to get students in here,” Masters Gallery’s Flora says. “We can start newcomers with no experience on the production line and then employees can get additional education and move into other positions.”
For Nicolet Plastics, it’s looking at seeing how it can help create or contribute to a plastics manufacturing program either at Northcentral Technical College or Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Gafvert says.
“That would be something that stimulates interest in the industry and may bring more employees our way,” he says. “We’re constantly thinking and trying to come up with new recruitment ideas.”