Sherl Hill - Qualified help wanted
Great news: manufacturing business is growing! Unfortunately, this positive news is accompanied by challenges in finding work-ready employees.
Economic difficulties are finally easing, and forecasts are looking better. The U.S. manufacturing sector has expanded for the 11th consecutive month, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s April report, and the economy expanded for the 59th consecutive month.
McMinnville’s economy features an eclectic array of boutique industries manufacturing a wide variety of products, including fabricated steel, specialty foods, plastic tubing, aerospace and components, dental equipment and specialty machining and construction equipment.
Generally, we’re small- to mid-size companies focusing on high-quality products, specifically tailored to customer needs, emphasizing value through personal relationships with suppliers, customers, employees and the community.
In our area, manufacturing orders are up, inventories are growing and forecasted demand is improving. Sales and profit figures are increasing, and we are hiring more staff. Sales are up by 15 percent this year. Even over the past four years, business has steadily grown. The bleeding has stopped!
However, we face a workforce deficiency. Local manufacturers are struggling to find enough qualified, motivated, work-ready employees — a deficiency that threatens the growth and retention of our industrial businesses.
A case in point
Freelin-Wade has experienced major growth in its manufacturing of plastic tubing and coiled hose products, but in McMinnville, we become cautious about growth because of problems finding a consistent and stable employee base.
How can this be, with still-significant unemployment? Why can’t graduates find jobs? What about those commuting to work to Portland or Salem? Clearly, something is missing in the workforce equation.
Between October 2013 and April 2014, our production employees worked 4,220 overtime hours to fill orders, with lead times growing from 1-2 weeks to as many as six. We lost orders because we couldn’t meet our customers’ timelines, and even had to decline potential clients.
We knew how to identify and address ever-present supply chain disruptions, cost concerns, and decisions on pricing and marketing, but workforce challenges had us stumped. Staffing issues had never been this difficult.
We examined hiring statistics associated with 998 employment applications in the past 12 months, finding that 75 percent of applicants failed either our pre-employment drug screen or a basic math and spelling test, or had criminal records involving crimes against people. Another 15 percent did not pass a basic screening interview.
Among employees hired, our turnover rate in the first 90 days was 10 to 14 percent. We were losing people who could not maintain acceptable attendance, follow instructions or meet work standards. Some left for other positions with higher wages outside McMinnville.
We found that too many job seekers don’t know about Freelin-Wade, or recognize that great jobs are available at our company and many others in McMinnville.
As many as 34 percent of workers living in McMinnville travel elsewhere to work. Some commute for higher pay, unaware they could make more here. They simply don’t have enough information to accurately compare wages, benefits and travel costs.
More pieces to the puzzle
We recognized that we offer competitive wages, generous employer-paid health coverage, on-the-job training and education reimbursement, to name a few. We provide opportunity for advancement and promote continuous learning, creative problem-solving and community involvement. Our employees work with customers and suppliers around the world, and create new products and production methods every day – not exactly boring assembly-line work!
Clearly, we needed to figure out how to reach potential new employees.
We began using local print advertising and other resources, including the Chamber of Commerce and McMinnville Downtown Association, and we are being noticed by more job seekers. Our first in-house job in April drew more than 100 applicants, and we received another 200 online applications. Most open position have been filled, and we have a list of qualified prospects for future openings.
Last year, we joined a McMinnville Economic Development Partnership project to help build an internship program called McMinnville Works. Now in its first full year of operation, the project is providing 25 paid internship positions with 11 host businesses.
McMinnville Works interns receive real work experience, career development opportunities and the chance to make peer and business contacts. Internships give employers the opportunity to sell themselves to future employees.
Progress, plus challenges
While our immediate manpower struggle is reduced, a real solution remains elusive.
We’re telling our story, and it’s being heard by some really great people. We attracted 15 more talented staff members, and they’re staying with us.
However, we improved our staffing situation by competing with other employers for a limited number of available, work-ready employees. What we all need is more local people to become ready, knowledgeable and willing to work.
That will be Phase II in growing our own workforce.
Guest writer Sherl Hill of McMinnville has worked for 27 years at Freelin-Wade, where she started as bookkeeper and now is vice president and general manager. She received the Mary Pearmine Workforce Leadership Award and serves as treasurer for Cascade Employers Association board. She loves to travel. Her two sons, Jeremy and Nicholas, also work for Freelin-Wade.
Editor’s Note: Related commentary and feature articles are published in “Made in Yamhill County,” a special section included in today’s News-Register.