Employers are warming to new hires that need training

Manufacturers who were cutting back only a few years ago now have to be more flexible, and creative, to fill jobs.


After six years of working at a McDonald’s in Forest Lake, Danielle Guy decided it was time for something new.

A family friend told her that the metal fabrication plant where he worked in Stacy, Minn., had openings, and urged her to apply. While she was attracted by the possibility of more hours and better pay, Guy, 22, had some reservations.

“I had no experience in this field,” she said. She applied anyway, and what happened next reflects a shift in the U.S. workplace: she was hired. Now instead of producing meals at warp speed, she’s assembling machine housings, grinding sheet metal and discovering the intricacies of shipping and receiving at Wyoming Machine.

Lori Tapani, who co-owns the company with her sister Traci, said hiring Guy required looking at her potential.

“Instead of saying, ‘You have no manufacturing experience,’ we asked, ‘What have you done?’ McDonald’s is really, really good at following processes. I figured that if she graduated from Hamburger U and mastered processes for them, she can help us do that here. We said, ‘Let’s give her a shot,’ ” she said. “It’s all about changing the way we think of hiring people.”

Co-owners Traci, left, and Lori Tapani, on the work floor of Wyoming Machine, have changed the way they hire by looking harder at potential, rather than only at skills.

It’s a change that’s taking hold in staff-starved factories around the country. Production managers say they’re increasingly overlooking inexperience and training fresh-faced newbees themselves. It’s a big change from the Great Recession, when Minnesota factories shed 31,000 manufacturing workers and spent the post recession years being quite choosy about whom they allowed to join their ranks.

But with baby boomers retiring in droves and the state’s jobless rate at just 3.9 percent, factory ­headhunters are being forced to get creative just to stay fully staffed. Recent economic reports indicate that 40 percent of U.S. factories are hiring, up from 31 percent just a year ago.

Competition for production workers is so fierce that recruiters and owners say they are venturing into unlikely places to nab talent.

Zero Zone, a freezer display case maker in Ramsey, recently hired a Starbucks barista and a Jo-Ann Fabrics clerk and turned to high school guidance counselors to find two other production workers. Express Employment in Edina has a client scooping up fast-food workers for call centers. At the same time, Copeland Trucking in Fridley is turning to tech schools, job training centers and offender rehabilitation programs to staff its growing business.

Copeland co-owner Tim Hoag said he had no choice but to think broadly. “We have an acute diesel mechanics shortage and an acute shortage of licensed commercial drivers.”

Hiring and then training unskilled workers appears to be “the front end of a trend,” said Kirby Sneen, vice president of the 400-member Manufacturers Alliance in Minnesota. Until recently, “manufacturers have not been necessarily willing to train [new hires],” Sneen said.

“They expected those individuals would bring those basic entry level skills with them to the job. But in the months and years to come, manufacturers will become more and more desperate to fill the [job skills] gap,” he said. With unemployment so low, “they now consider alternatives that they have not before.”

Last month, 30 members of the Manufacturers Alliance trade group met in Golden Valley and shared that they all recently hired workers that they then had to train in “blueprint reading, mechanical, electrical, assembly skills and even social etiquette skills,” said Sneen. “This is new,” he added.

Jim Johnson, president of the Minnesota Recruiting and Staffing Association, said change came slowly. “In 2008 and 2009, [companies] would be super picky and choosy and demand a lot out of each person. If [factories] needed to hire somebody, they’d say, I need this skill, and this one and this. They would put all of these unique skills together and demand that the job candidate have all of them to get the job.”

At the time, it didn’t matter that production jobs sat open because factory orders were stagnant. But now many companies are seeing orders increase, “and factories are severely short staffed,” Johnson said.

Some 38 percent of factories report that unfilled jobs are still staying open for more than three months, according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research and job site Indeed.com.

“It’s a big problem in the Twin Cities,” Johnson said. “The Twin Cities has the lowest unemployment rate of any metro area in the nation. So if they can’t fill a specific role [more companies] are settling for less, are retraining and increasing wages to attract workers.”

This year, several factory heads started recruiting and training themselves after temp help agencies failed to find workers willing to shift from temp status to full time. Rick Steer, systems division manager for the refrigerated display case maker Zero Zone in Ramsey is one of them.

“We are constantly looking for good people. It just blows me away that we work with some pretty big temp agencies, yet we get nothing,” he said. “We are scraping bottom [in terms of getting job candidates]. We are just trying to figure out where to find them.”

Frustrated, Steer asked local high school guidance counselors to reach out to past graduates known for their drive. That worked. Steer recently hired a young man who tried out for the Olympic Speed Skating team. He started last month in Zero Zone’s quality control division.

Steer hired a former student away from Jo-Ann Fabrics to work in quality control. He hired a third away from Starbucks to train under Zero Zone’s purchasing supply chain manager. “Our manager just told her that if you learn these core skills and you understand the inventory and receivables, we have jobs in purchasing.” Steer said. “You’d would be worth a lot more money to us.”

Danielle Guy added metal washers on this panel as a part of her workday at Wyoming Machine, which specializes in precision sheet-metal fabrication.

Back at Wyoming Machine, Danielle Guy is settling in. “Manufacturing was kind of scary at first, but actually I love it here,” she said. “You never would think that you would jump out of fast food and into manufacturing. But it’s incredible. After you learn about the process and quality control and get training, it’s easier.”

Tapani, meanwhile, admits change was overdue after she and other manufacturers complained for three years that they couldn’t grow their companies because they couldn’t hire workers with just the right skills. “We’re [learning] to stop crying about this,” she said, “and to change our thinking and be creative and entrepreneurial.”

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