The words stung Jim Koronkiewicz as if someone had physically hit him.
Koronkiewicz, the general manager of BPM Inc., was in Oshkosh attending an apprenticeship event when a candidate uttered that he would not consider any positions north of Green Bay because there was “nothing to do” up there.
A lifelong resident of Northeast Wisconsin’s Northwoods region, and the manager of a successful and growing specialty paper and converting company, those were words Koronkiewicz could not let pass. That’s when he knew the regional economy would face unique recruiting challenges in an ever-tightening market.
While his company faces the same labor challenges as Green Bay, Appleton or Oshkosh, companies in the Northwoods region also must battle the perception they are too remote and lack the quality of life young workers are looking for.
“I knew right then we were going to have to respond a bit differently when it came to attracting and growing our workforce,” Koronkiewicz says. “We needed to figure out some better ways to connect and to create an exposure to our area and what it’s all about.”
From that experience, Koronkiewicz would become one of the driving forces behind a task force of the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance. Called the Solutions to the Skills Shortage in Marinette & Oconto Counties, it includes manufacturers, schools, chambers of commerce and other regional entities. The task force works both to attract new talent to the region, and with regional school districts, to grow talent from within.
The group’s message is two-fold: The region has a diverse economy and offers opportunities for advancement and great lifestyle amenities.
“There are great careers here and a lot of great things to do,” says Chantel Stuppnig, human resources generalist at Samuel Pressure Vessel Group in Marinette. “When I first came here, I had some of those same thoughts, but I’ve learned there are a lot of opportunities for both work and life.”
Stuppnig was instrumental in getting the WAVE Young Professionals group from the Marinette Menominee Chamber of Commerce active in recruiting and education efforts. The group helped coordinate a NEWMA college intern tour in June, attended by 20 interns from several University of Wisconsin campuses as well as Michigan Tech and Milwaukee School of Engineering. All are working at regional companies this summer.
In addition to meeting with employers such as BPM, Anchor Coupling and Waupaca Foundry, the half-day event included a lunch-and-learn about the area as well as a tour of area hot spots Red Arrow and Henes parks, the Menominee Lighthouse, Ogden Club and the YMCA.
“What we were hearing is that the companies would like to offer college internships and co-ops, but were not sure how to reach out,” says Ann Franz, director of NEWMA, which formed the task force in 2016. “We needed to be able to help our members with talent recruitment, and that region has some unique challenges.”
Many of the region’s manufacturing centers offer a great lifestyle at lower costs than other metro areas, secrets that are hidden to many except those who grew up and live in the area, Franz says. A real estate agent at the intern event explained that young professionals often can own a home sooner, and for less money, than in larger metro areas.
In addition to attracting talent, the task force has been working closely with the regional school districts to introduce students and parents to the variety of career options available in the region and to help support educational efforts to grow the workforce from within.
“The schools can’t afford the equipment to give students exposure to all the options, but we can,” Koronkiewicz says of area manufacturers offering apprenticeships and other opportunities for local middle and high school students. “The more that students are made aware of the opportunities, the better we will all be.”
Things are showing signs of improvement.
Koronkiewicz has two college interns at BPM this summer and sent both on the intern tour. One intern, who he found at last year’s internship draft day event at Lambeau Field, came back “enlightened,” he says. His other intern grew up in Pulaski and is more familiar with the area. “He just loves it here.”
“But that really is the biggest thing,” Koronkiewicz says. “We need to get them exposure to the area.”