Looking north to find workers

Region’s employers reach out to Michigan

Posted on Sep 11, 2019 :: Back Office Operations
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

“Now hiring.”

That phrase is more than just a shingle many Northeast Wisconsin businesses have put out. It’s a rallying cry among the area’s major manufacturers.

“There’s definitely not enough people in Wisconsin to fill the jobs. We need to find other populations of talent,” says Ann Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance.

That need for talent is leading companies to look north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Northeast Wisconsin’s record-low unemployment, which hovers around 3 percent, combined with an increased demand among manufacturers for workers as business grows, has many employers unsure of what to do.

“We’ve brainstormed a lot of ideas for how to attract people,” says Sara Timm, marketing and communications manager at Waupaca Foundry, adding the manufacturer is down about 80 employees. “We’re not alone.”

For Waupaca Foundry, that shortage took an interesting turn. Not only did the company reach out to workers in the UP with recruiting efforts, it bused them in. And in July, Waupaca Foundry opened a 20,000-square-foot plant in Ironwood, Mich. The UP location, which is housed in what had been an empty building, employs 40 but can accommodate up to 65. There, employees finish castings of parts made at the Waupaca plants.

“We’ve come up with these creative solutions” to deal with the worker shortage, says Rob Johnson, chief financial officer and vice president of finance for Waupaca Foundry, which employs 4,500 nationwide.

One of those ideas was a short-term program that bused in workers from Michigan to its Waupaca plant, offering housing and a four-day work week. “It filled the gap of not burning out our existing employees,” Johnson says.

“I think that strategy worked really, really well for us,” adds Timm. “(The workers) worked alongside seasoned, tenured employees.”

Johnson says Waupaca Foundry has also recruited on military bases. “We do a lot of events; we’re doing everything we can to find employees,” he says.

The UP was ripe for recruitment for several reasons. For Waupaca Foundry, the location was just close enough (within a four-hour drive) and offered a pool of unemployed workers. Just over 200 employees lost their jobs when the Ojibway Correctional Facility closed late last year, while another 100 lost their jobs when WE Energies closed its Presque Isle power plant.

“We thought there may be an opportunity. We did some job fairs up there and there was a lot of interest,” Johnson says.

Franz says manufacturers have an aging workforce and as those workers retire, there are not enough workers to fill those spots.

“We need to continue to change the image many have of manufacturing. It’s not just a Northeast Wisconsin issue; it’s a state issue,” she says.

Waupaca Foundry’s Timm agrees. “We’re changing the nature of our jobs. We’re adding automation and replacing jobs that were once very manual.”

Franz says recruiting doesn’t just mean finding employees to fill open positions; it’s also about informing up-and-coming workers about the opportunities available in manufacturing.

To that end, this past April, representatives from NEWMA visited Northern Michigan University in Marquette with representatives from two Green Bay employers, Carnivore Meat Co. and Pioneer Metal Finishing, to talk about internships and jobs.

“It was such a great conversation,” Franz says. “We met with deans and faculty. They were so excited.”

In May, NEWMA bused in staff from regional state schools and those in the UP to tour manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin.

This November, NEWMA will host its Internship Draft Day, where hundreds of students, including those from the UP, will be able to interview with companies for possible internships.

“We need to bring these students to our area,” Franz says. “This is not a short-term strategy. It’s a long-term strategy. It’s going to be a year or two before we start seeing some fruit. It’s important to start developing these relationships.