By Bridget McCrea
As the labor market tightens up and manufacturing falls to the backburner as a career choice, manufacturers are developing new ways to recruit and retain their next generation.
A few years ago, the management team at Kistner Concrete Products realized that its traditional employee recruiting approaches weren’t meeting the company’s needs. Like many precasters, the Lockport, N.Y.-based manufacturer settled for prospective employees that fell into its lap, said Michael Kistner, vice president and owner. The company didn’t give much regard to the potential sources that it could be tapping into.
“We decided that we wanted to be more selective about finding workers instead of just settling for whatever came along,” Kistner said.
And with that, the company took on a new approach to recruiting and training the new generation of precasters. As part of this new commitment to making precast cool again for new recruits, Kistner planned a more intentional approach that includes reaching out to vocational schools, community colleges and universities in its area. This grassroots strategy was based on the knowledge that such institutions were veritable sources for new employees, sales reps, managers and even company leaders. For example, last year the precaster invited Orleans/Niagara BOCES Building Trades students to tour its facility and get an inside look at what goes on in a precast manufacturing plant.
Focused on preparing students to enter the construction field and/ or continue their education at a post-secondary level, the Building Trades program helps students get hands-on with tools and equipment; learn the theoretical aspects of carpentry, masonry and plumbing; and develop an understanding of common structures, their parts and relationships to one other.
Building Trades teacher Matt Anastasi said his students loved how Kistner compared the precast operations to “working in a big Play-Doh factory.”
“They really enjoyed the tour and watching the employees manufacture the products. Mr. Kistner was great with our students,” Anastasi said in the newspaper article, “Kistner Concrete Products Share Expertise with Building Trade Students.” “All of them thought he would make a great boss. I really can’t thank him enough for investing his time with our classes.
“I am sure we have students who would love to work for him.”
That last comment is music to Kistner’s ears. In fact, it’s why his company reworked its recruiting strategies in the first place. He says the BOCES effort kicked off with a letter to the school’s Work Based Learning Coordinator, Jackie Coyle, who was very receptive to the idea of getting students out into the real-world work environment. Kistner brought along a PowerPoint presentation that he typically uses when talking to engineering groups, thinking that its “cool factor” would engage students and make them want to learn more about precast concrete manufacturing.
“When I do presentations like that one, I really try to enlighten the audience because I know a lot of the people have no idea or conception of what precast even is,” Kistner said. “Most times, I get reactions like, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually pretty cool.’”
He said he weaves in messaging about modular construction and talks about how it’s the future of precast and construction as a whole.
Kistner has made similar presentations for area community colleges and universities, both of which serve as a recruiting resources for his firm.
“It’s a great way to spark interest,” Kistner said. These and other efforts to align Kistner Concrete with current students and recent grads are paying off. Since implementing the new approach, the company has already hired an Engineer in Training and at least four construction workers, welders and carpenters via the school programs that it’s aligned with.
“They’re all quality employees because we vetted them rather than taking whatever came to us through word-of-mouth referrals or employment agencies,” Kistner said.
The EIT, for example, attended one of Kistner’s university presentations and is now working toward his Professional Engineer designation. And while he admits that this approach takes decidedly more effort than simply sitting back and waiting for new recruits to discover precast on their own, he said the effort is well worth it.
“I’ve done a bunch of presentations that basically take about a half a day at a time, but we’re very happy with the results because we’ve been able to change the culture of our organization to having people who want to be here, versus just having employees who are here by ,” he said.
Doing battle in a tight labor market
Earlier this year, the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits dipped to 234,000, the lowest number since 2013. With anything less than 300,000 indicating a healthy labor market, the number of filings represented a 43-year low, as well as a further tightening of the labor market and potentially faster wage growth. The U.S. labor market is now at or close to full employment, with the unemployment rate at 4.8%, according to a Reuters report.
Skilled workers are especially hard to find right now – a reality that precasters are realizing and reacting to. In fact, nearly 2/3 of small businesses are spending more time training workers than they were a year ago, according to a survey by The Wall Street Journal and Vistage International.
In “Skilled Workers are Scarce in Tight Labor Market,” Wall Street Journal’s Jeffery Sparshott writes, “That could give more Americans access to skilled manufacturing jobs as companies invest the time and resources to bring in less-experienced workers.
“As a result, some firms are casting a wider recruiting net and landing workers with fewer relevant skills.”
With the new presidential administration promising $1 trillion in new, national infrastructure improvements over the coming years – and estimates running quite a bit higher – Dean Wolosiansky, general manager at Lindsay Precast’s Ohio Division in Canal Fulton, said the need for skilled workers in the precast industry could become even more pressing.
“As the economy grows and as our infrastructure needs expand, the number of available manufacturing jobs is also going to increase,” Wolosiansky said. He sees real challenges ahead for precasters that are trying to recruit millennial employees who now make up the largest part of the American workforce. With a high interest in technology, finance and other sectors that offer desk jobs, these younger workers don’t necessarily have manufacturing careers high on their wish lists.
“Basically everyone who is coming out of school thinks having a successful career means sitting at a computer,” Wolosiansky said. “The question is, how do you shine a light on the fact that manufacturing is actually a very secure job, and that infrastructure is always going to be in high demand? That’s our challenge as precasters.”
That responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the precasters themselves, said Wolosiansky, whose firm has made an organization-wide commitment to recruiting for itself and for the precast industry as a whole. Commitment starts with a flat corporate culture that finds everyone from the administrative employees to sales reps to the production team focused on corporate pride, open communications and making employees a part of important decisions.
“The new generation of workers has a tough time with hierarchy and this whole model of ‘We’re in it together,’ seems to go a long way,” Wolosiansky said.
Lindsay Precast also has an established referral program that encourages current workers to invite their friends and family into the fold.
“We really try to promote a sense of family and friendship,” said Wolosiansky, whose team also uses social media and other online tools to seek out good candidates, knowing millennial recruits are particularly apt to use these channels for job searches.
“We’ll go on Facebook to find people whose background would be suitable for this type of job while also working to promote a sense of accomplishment and pride in our company via social media,” Wolosiansky said.
He said the strategies are working well for Lindsay Precast, which has seen big improvements in its recruiting results over the last few years.
“Everyone here understands that we’re operating in a changing marketplace,” he said. “From the owner of the company straight through to the individual employee, we all have to be adaptive and be focused on changing before we find ourselves in a tough spot.”
It starts at your front door
John Kaczmarczyk knows that manufacturing is pretty far from the typical high school, vocational school or college grad’s mind right now. In fact, it’s probably not even running a close second to the technology, finance and creative jobs that most millennials are vying for. This presents a real problem for manufacturers that need skilled workers and are watching their veteran employees head off into retirement at an alarming clip.
As director of operations for Press-Seal Corp. in Fort Wayne, Ind., Kaczmarczyk is concerned.
“Thirty years ago there was something called shop, woodworking, welding, and auto body at the high school and vocational school levels,” he said. “Those skill sets aren’t even promoted anymore.”
To offset this challenge and shine a brighter light on the viability of a manufacturing career, Press-Seal initiated a “make manufacturing cool again” program about five years ago.
As part of that effort, the company has embedded itself in the community at the high school, community college and university level, knowing that those institutions serve as incubators for the workforce of tomorrow. Central to this is a commitment to tell the industry’s story, focusing on the great advancements manufacturers have made over the last decade and the many apprenticeship and co-op opportunities available in the field.
Press-Seal also called on its local school board to find out how it could do a better job of promoting manufacturing jobs to students and recent grads.
“We partnered with one particular school that was within a five-mile radius of our plant and created a program of recognition for Press-Seal with that institution,” Kaczmarczyk said.
That meant participating in job fairs at the school and holding open houses for both students and parents. Kaczmarczyk sees parental participation as a key driver in Press-Seal’s recruiting success over the last five years.
“We know that at the kitchen table the conversation has been lost over the years, so we have to instill a buy-in,” he said. “That has to happen at the family level.”
According to Kaczmarczyk, Press-Seal’s efforts are paying off in the form of lower staff turnover and greater retention of existing, skilled labor and qualified next-generation employees.
“We actually now have a backlog of people through our local community, which has come to recognize the PS logo and what we stand for and represent,” said Kaczmarczyk, who tells other manufacturers to kick off their own recruiting efforts by taking an introspective look at their own facilities, workforces and corporate cultures.
“Before you kick off your initiative outward, start right at your front door,” he said.
Blocking and tackling 101
Ira S. Wolfe, president at Success Performance Solutions, a recruiting and employee selection firm in Lehigh Valley, Pa., has seen firsthand the struggles that today’s manufacturers are dealing with. Like Kistner, Wolosiansky and Kaczmarczyk pointed out, the image of manufacturing just isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago.
“A lot of manufacturers are tackling a 21st-century problem with 19th-century tools and it’s not working out very well for them,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said one of the first things precasters can do is accept the fact that manufacturing can be a dirty job, particularly to a millennial who may have had his or her heart set on becoming a designer, IT professional or architect. However, precast concrete manufacturing actually incorporates all those passions into one rewarding career that produces very tangible results. A $1 trillion national infrastructure improvement plan, for example, would incorporate new bridges, highways and utility infrastructure – all of which require precast.
To get these points across, Wolfe tells manufacturers to focus on rebranding precast as a truly cool and rewarding career track. And remind candidates that precast isn’t just down-and-dirty plant work – it also requires good project management, sales and accounting professionals.
“It’s not just manual labor anymore and people need to know that,” Wolfe said.
Finally, Wolfe said precasters should consider their current employment and advancement pathways, knowing that the new generation of workers will want to know what lies ahead for them five, 10 or 15 years down the road. NPCA offers one pathway to advancement for employees in the precast industry with the Production & Quality School and the Master Precaster certificate program. Developed in conjunction with industry experts, producers, departments of transportation and academia, the curriculum helps employees new to the industry and those with precast experience advance their careers. Providing a career path is particularly critical for the millennial generation, 50% of which said they’d consider taking a job with a different company for a raise of 20% or less, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.
For now, Kistner plans to continue with his two-pronged approach (presentations and on-site visits) to help get more next-gen employees interested in manufacturing.
“We’re creating interest and interaction with those presentations, and then getting people in the door to experience the environment here firsthand,” he said. “The process takes some persistence and time, but it definitely works.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.