Rural recruit

Posted on Mar 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

It’s a concern Dean Stewart hears over and over again from manufacturers: We can’t find enough skilled workers.

But the dean of corporate training and economic development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College says the problem is more pressing for manufacturers outside of the Fox Valley.

“Many of these workplaces have an aging workforce and really are looking for help,” Stewart says.

Nicolet Plastics Inc. of Mountain in northern Oconto County is one of those manufacturers struggling to fill open jobs.

“There’s no hiding it; finding enough skilled workers is a problem,” says CEO and President Bob MacIntosh.

The plastics injector molding firm employs 72 workers covering three shifts.

“We work to be an employer of choice within a 40-mile radius so people will drive here to work. Our pay scale is comparable to the Fox Valley and we offer good benefits and a good environment,” says MacIntosh, before adding that it’s not always enough.

“Recruiting is difficult and time consuming. We’re on the lookout for people who have the right skills and talents and are interested in  relocating here.”

Nicolet Plastics is hardly alone. JoAnn Hall, dean of economic and workforce development at Moraine Park Technical College, says it’s a common complaint she hears in her district, which includes locations a little more than an hour away from Milwaukee or Madison. “People may say they are willing to drive 45 minutes or an hour each way, but once they start doing it and with gas at almost $4, it becomes a harder sell,” she says. “There aren’t any easy answers.”

Solutions to filling the gap include closer partnerships with local schools to increase interest in manufacturing careers among high school students, holding boot camps for different professions to increase interest and training current workers to take on larger roles. Pooled together, they may make a difference, but companies wonder if it will be enough.

“This is a big problem and one that needs to be tackled from a lot of different angles,” Hall says.

Setting themselves apart

While some companies are looking for CNC operators, welders or machinists, ChemDesign Products in Marinette has struggled with recruiting chemical engineers.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t make it past the headhunters we work with. They don’t want to go north of Green Bay,” says President David Mielke. “This is a good place to raise a family and we try to talk up that part of it. We’re living in God’s Country. Many people with chemical engineering jobs can find something in Chicago or Indianapolis. We’re not even on the map.”

To get on the map, ChemDesign, Nicolet and other manufacturers engage in multiple approaches to find and retain talent. The tactics depend on the open position, MacIntosh says.

For example, Nicolet works closely with NWTC and North Central Technical College to provide training to local residents who have the right soft skills, but not necessarily the proper training to work in the plastics industry.

“If we can find the right attitude, we can teach them the job,”  MacIntosh says.
For management candidates, it’s a little more difficult. As part of the interview process, MacIntosh arranges a dinner with members of the community so they have the opportunity to ask about schools, shopping and living in a less populated area. They also have the chance to start putting faces with names so if they do decide to relocate to Mountain, they will already know a few people.

“This is a beautiful place to live and work. When you leave home, you’re on vacation. Others have to drive here to experience this,” MacIntosh says.

To recruit professionals – specifically chemical engineers – ChemDesign has built strong relationships with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan Technological University and has a strong internship program.

“We work hard to make our internships stand out. We put them right to work on real projects,” says Brian Bourgeois, human resources director at ChemDesign. “Ideally, we want our interns to come for at least two summers and even stay on after graduation.”

The company uses headhunting services to find professionals who may be looking to make a move.

“We point out that if they don’t choose to live in Marinette – although it’s a great community and I’ve been here 20 years myself – that they can live in the northern suburbs of Green Bay and it’s just a 45-minute commute,” Mielke says. “If you’re coming from the Chicago area, a 45-minute commute is the norm.

“We sell our value to them that ChemDesign is an exciting place to work and there is a lot of growth potential. Some people are excited about being able to come to a place and make a difference and that’s what we sell them on.”

Keeping it local

For many companies, the best way to fill their open positions is to tap the local population, and that’s where the technical colleges come in, Stewart says.

“The key for many of these companies is to get the younger people to stay and work in their hometowns – that’s a more viable option than trying to attract people from the outside,” he says.

Getting students interested in manufacturing while still in high school opens up a lot of doors and even if someone moves away for college, they are more willing to return to their hometown for a career than attracting someone who has never heard of Niagara, Wausaukee or any number of the small northern Wisconsin towns where local manufacturers thrive, Stewart says.

MPTC’s Hall says some companies look for workers who have experience working on farms since a lot of those skills, such as mechanical inclinations, along with a solid work ethic are easily transferrable to the manufacturing environment.

“We work with companies, too, on raising their profile – getting them to job fairs and helping to get their name out there so people know who they are,” she says. “If you’re in a small town, only those people living there may know who you are. If you raise your profile and talk about what you have to offer, you will be able to attract from a wider area.”

NWTC’s mobile CNC lab is one way the college is seeking to help  local high schools get students interested in manufacturing. The lab has 13 computers, a CNC lathe and a CNC mill.

“Get the kids excited about manufacturing. About 50 percent of the population stays within 50 miles of where they grew up. We need to get these kids to stay in their hometowns and get them to be productive,” Stewart says.

Hall also shares stories of successful partnerships between high schools and local companies that help increase interest among students about careers in manufacturing.

“We point to the great example of Ariens and Brillion High School or what Mayville Engineering is doing with Mayville High School,” she says. “You have to let students – and their parents – know that there are jobs available in manufacturing and they are good jobs.”

For those out of high school, regional technical colleges do a lot of soft skills training in leadership and communication. Those can be offered right on site at a company or at one of the college’s many regional locations. As for attracting unemployed workers looking for new opportunities, MPTC, for example, offers CNC machinist and welding boot camps to provide basic training in new career areas.

Working together

Marinette has a population of 25,000, but is home to several major manufacturers, including Marinette Marine, which employs upwards of 1,000 workers, drawing in employees from up to an hour away. Mielke says local manufacturers realize they have a labor shortage and are working together to address the issue.

“We all struggle with filling those professional positions,” he says. “We’re trying to get more involved with the chamber of commerce to talk about why living here is such a great thing. Bring in prospects and take them down to the shore in the summer and look across the bay to see Door County. There’s a lot of natural beauty here and you also have the opportunity to get to know your neighbors. You go into a business and they know who you are.”

Bourgeois tends to focus on job prospects that have some tie to Wisconsin – either they grew up here or have family here. That can make the move an easier sell, he says.

Mielke says ChemDesign strives to be an employer of choice by providing good benefits and wages as well as a good working environment.

“We have a lot of longevity. Once people are here, they really enjoy it,” he says. “The key is to get them to look past our location and come in to give us a serious look.”

As with many professionals, the other part of the equation is finding work for a spouse. “There’s some pushback. People are like, ‘It sounds like a great job, but where will my spouse work?’ so we have to deal with that, too,” Mielke says.

The competition is intense for skilled professionals, Stewart says. “The business climate is becoming more competitive and owners are investing in their people and their companies,” he says. “Those are all good signs.”

Workers Wanted

Appleton accounting firm Schenck SC looked into the current labor shortage     for specific jobs. Companies could respond with more than one answer. Among the findings:
» 52.4 percent reported that the current skilled labor shortage “somewhat” hindered business and expansion plans.
» 29.8 percent called the effect of the labor shortage “significant.”
» Most employers – 85.7 percent – are responding to the labor shortage by offering more overtime to their employees.
» 54 percent are partnering with local technical colleges on training programs.
» 46 percent say they’ve increased their wages for difficult-to-fill positions.
» 51 percent of respondents say they are open to participating and supporting training programs in schools.

For more on the study, visit