How to Grow in the Midst of a Talent Shortage

This article appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Michigan manufacturers are in a quandary. Despite a year of record growth in 2021, with manufacturers thriving in their role of shepherding the country through the COVID-19 pandemic, employers continue to face challenges when it comes to talent recruitment.

The talent crisis has affected manufacturers for a long time but, thanks to COVID-19, the situation has become even more complicated with far-reaching impact — business growth and strategic forecasting.

So, for companies that are growing or that want to grow in the future, what’s the solution?

The Chicken and the Egg

To Kyle Szczypienski, Owner and Founder of KCS Advanced Machining Services, this is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario that at first takes careful analysis and planning. “It means we can’t grow until we can hire more staff but we also can’t hire more staff if we don’t grow. We’re eager to grow, but cautious of our situation.”

Based in Livonia, KCS is a small manufacturer that specializes in precision turning and multi-axis machining of build-to-spec products for a range of industries. Szczypienski’s viewpoint is likely shared by many employers across the state. But what are companies doing to balance their growth with the realities of a statewide talent shortage? How are they filling open positions? It depends on who you ask.

Matt Missad is the CEO of Grand Rapids-based UFP Industries. They’ve developed a multi-pronged approach that includes increased investment in automation, making their entry-level positions more accessible and attracting and developing talent through their own business school. Despite all of that, he says they currently have 500 open positions throughout the company, which produces lumber and alternative material building and industrial products to serve retail, industrial and construction markets.

“These openings have been difficult to fill. We’ve tried to automate some of our processes and provide other innovative solutions, like making labor-
intensive entry level jobs easier to do. Ultimately though, our recent growth and successes have hinged on the willingness of our current employees to work overtime,” says Missad.

Starting in 2020, UFP made a broad strategic pivot to manage by business segment rather than geography. Missad says this new direction has accelerated the company’s growth which led to six acquisitions and record-breaking revenues in 2021. He says that navigating this growth and the reorganization of the company in the midst of an unprecedented talent crisis has been a “significant hurdle.”

One area that has boosted recruitment, and is something Missad is particularly proud of, is the UFP Business School, which offers a debt-free business degree equivalent to both internal and external applicants.

“We believe that it’s really important to provide employees an opportunity to grow within the company,” says Missad. “Our unique business school provides a business administration degree within two years.”

This benefit is open to any employee within UFP Industries and to outside applicants as well. “This program is designed for individuals who might not be able to afford to go to college or have not really thought about going to college. It gives them an opportunity to earn a full scholarship, and they are able to work while they go to school,” says Missad. “Once they’re out, they can move into either management or sales or some other position of responsibility in the company. This program has been a key differentiator for us.”

The program started in 2016. The most recent class, which began in September of 2021, received about 100 internal applicants for 25 available spots.

Who Will Fill the Jobs?

Like UFP Industries, many Michigan manufacturers are reporting unprecedented business growth which inevitably leads to the creation of new jobs.

Julie Mann, Chief Human Resources Officer at NEOGEN Corporation, notes that the company has only continued to grow, recently announcing several new acquisitions and a planned merger with 3M’s Food Safety business.

“Even with all the shifts due to COVID-19, we’re still doing quite well,” says Mann. “Our team has remained focused on our mission to protect the world’s food supply, reporting revenue growth in 117 of our past 123 quarters.”

NEOGEN is a Lansing-based manufacturer that offers solutions ensuring the safety of food and animals around the world — from genomic solutions and analysis software that helps livestock producers and pet owners make informed breeding decisions to biosecurity products that reduce food waste, loss and antibiotic use.

For Mann, it’s not only the volume of new applicants coming in — or lack thereof — it’s how HR professionals and recruiters are engaging with talent prospects.

“We’ve had to be pretty innovative with our recruiting practices,” says Mann. “There are only so many virtual job fairs you can attend before you have to try something different. We have to make sure that we are appealing to what is important to workers and finding people who understand our mission and goals.”

For NEOGEN, the ever-present challenge of recruiting talent hasn’t altered the company’s growth plans. What it has done, says Mann, is placed more strain on the existing infrastructure.

“Continued growth is a great problem to have,” adds Mann. “We just need to be sure that we aren’t putting unnecessary tension on our processes and workers with the number of open positions we have.”

This is even more so the case for small manufacturers working in a niche field such as KCS which has a total staff of fewer than 20 employees.

“We seek a particular skill set: high level competent machinists but with strong programming skills and/or the interest and initiative to learn,” says Gordon Cole, VP of Strategy & Business Development with KCS. “The work we do is challenging and it’s complex. It calls on creativity and some people thrive on that. Those are the people we like.”

“Additionally, as a small company, we’ve got to be careful. We can’t expand too rapidly,” he adds. “The big fellas, they can roll with stuff a lot more readily than we can. I liken it to a stormy sea and a large ship, as opposed to a small ship. We notice the waves a lot more than the big boys.”

Ideally for KCS, they would like to let their customers and business acquisition drive the growth. But Cole admits that being in the low volume/high mix space of five-axis machining can be a double-edged sword whenfa it comes to recruitment and strategic business growth.

“It’s hard to find good people. At the same time, we’re a small company and sometimes folks like not only aspects of the work that we do, the challenges and the opportunity to learn new things, but also working in a smaller shop has its advantages,” says Cole. “Part of what I think we do is work to make the environment of our shop one that our employees want to be in. And that helps with retention.”

Sometimes, the right audience is right in your backyard. That’s precisely why manufacturers like Lear Corporation, Stellantis and Dakkota have incorporated community-first hiring strategies to support major facilities investments within Detroit.

What is a community-first hiring strategy? Essentially, these companies are giving priority for open positions to Detroit residents. By collaborating with Detroit at Work, all three of these organizations are creating jobs for Detroiters, as well as giving them the resources they need to qualify for these jobs.

For Stellantis, this has already resulted in the hiring of more than 2,100 Detroiters at the new Jeep assembly plant on Mack Avenue. The Lear Corporation deal, resulting in the creation of “Factory Zero,” is expected to bring 450 new jobs to the area when the assembly plant opens in mid-2022.

All of these organizations have agreed to give Detroiters the first shot at these jobs, and residents can sign up for training classes, resume workshops and more to prepare for these jobs on Detroit at Work’s website.

Innovative Solutions to Recruitment and Retention

As an HR veteran, NEOGEN’s Mann understands the value of marketing when it comes to talent recruitment. When Mann and her team started to see the effects of COVID-19 on recruitment, such as the impact on job fairs, they understood it was time to expand their acquisition channels.

For example, when NEOGEN saw their applicants for chemistry positions drop by more than 50 percent, the HR team pivoted and set out to develop relationships with several regional universities and community colleges that offer a strong science-related curriculum.

“It was important to us to take steps to meet future chemistry talent where they are now — in the classroom,” says Mann. “We wanted to get face time with students and share exactly what makes NEOGEN special. We know that people like to align with companies that have good values, a strong mission, growth opportunities and an impactful purpose. Sharing the story of NEOGEN helps us build positive relationships with our future talent.”

For NEOGEN, telling the company’s story and providing awareness isn’t limited to the classroom. NEOGEN also utilizes modern digital marketing practices to create initial interest, providing educational content and creating awareness that will, ideally, funnel online users to the company’s applications site.

“We’ve got multiple digital campaigns going on so that we can track the metrics. We’re active on YouTube. You have to hit all of those channels these days. You can’t just put your jobs out on your website and think that people are going to find them. Just doesn’t happen,” adds Mann.

In a similar effort, Szczypienski from KCS uses his personal Instagram channel to promote the more complex and innovative projects happening on the shop floor. KCS’s Cole relays the story of when Szczypienski posted a short video of the team making a sophisticated, high-performance intake for a race motor that caught the attention of another engineer which led to a significant piece of business for the small company. While this is a customer generation example of the power of digital media, Cole believes utilizing social media and video could be an effective talent recruitment tool.

“Just in a marketing sense, video is really the growing and preferred way a lot of folks are getting their information. So, I suspect that people who are just surfing around and looking at shops and seeing new things, they’d be positively impressed by what they see of us,” says Cole.

Bringing It All Together

While the economic situation in Michigan is a positive one, many manufacturers are experiencing frustration in the lack of qualified talent to fill open positions. If this is your struggle, you are not alone.

Adapting to the current dynamic working culture can go a long way toward addressing talent acquisition for any manufacturer. Businesses have diverse needs which means a wide variety of strategies are available such as offering employee incentives, more flexibility and/or investing heavily in creating a thriving culture. But one thing is clear: Whatever it is you’re doing to address the inescapable talent crisis can significantly impact long-term sustainability and future growth.

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