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Published in Manufacturing
A machine on the shop floor of Ludington-based FloraCraft Corp. A machine on the shop floor of Ludington-based FloraCraft Corp. COURTESY PHOTO

Geography adds to talent challenges for northwest Michigan manufacturers

BY Sunday, March 28, 2021 06:10pm

As Michigan manufacturers of all segments continue grappling with a persistent talent shortage and skills gap, furniture-maker Metalworks Inc. has to contend with a unique set of hurdles.

These are problems the company, which also does business as Great Openings, shares with its manufacturing brethren in Ludington and throughout the rest of the northwestern Lower Peninsula.

Geography — with Ludington fairly isolated along the Lake Michigan coast between Muskegon and Traverse City — is one of the most prominent issues making it tough for these manufacturers to acquire talent.

“Normally you can draw a 60-mile radius around your business or town and draw (talent) from that, but we only have half of that,” Metalworks President Tom Paine said. “We’re a little bit disabled there. We can’t attract people from all directions.”

This leaves a finite talent pool for a small area that features some surprisingly large manufacturers, including names like Metalworks, styrofoam products manufacturer FloraCraft Corp., precision extruded aluminum components manufacturer UACJ Automotive Whitehall Industries Inc. and furniture maker Brill Co.

In the case of Metalworks, about two-thirds of its 200-employee workforce is shop workers while the other third serve in support functions.

Collaboration vs. competition

The manufacturers concentrated in this area are left to find a balance between working collaboratively to find ways to keep the talent pool stocked while also engaging in healthy competition for workers.

Scott Lakari, vice president of operations for Metalworks, said that resources like the Mason County Manufacturers Association (MCMA), which is a part of the Mason County Growth Alliance, is an effective resource in developing ideas that can help all manufacturers in the area.

“One of the things we talk about as an association is we’re not competitors in the markets we serve but we do compete for the same workforce,” said Lakari, who leads the MCMA. “If we consider that 60-mile land lock with the group we have, we are competing for the same people and trying to make sure that when we hire a person we’re not losing them to FloraCraft or one of the other manufacturers in the community.”

At the moment, Metalworks isn’t in a panic to bring on new talent after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the office furniture industry when corporations across the country made a mass exodus from offices and transitioned to working from home. 

However, the company is working to ensure that current employees remain engaged and plans to hire additional workers when business volumes return to normal, which the company is expecting will happen near the end of this year.

FloraCraft President and CEO Eric Erwin agreed that manufacturers in the area need to engage in both collaboration and competition. 

By his assessment, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for both affordable housing and accessible child care in the Ludington area — issues where businesses could collaborate.

“That being said, my belief is that FloraCraft needs to be the employer of choice in Mason County,” Erwin said. “We’re competing for a scarce resource like highly qualified labor. It’s FloraCraft’s responsibility to recruit the best and retain the best. That doesn’t mean we necessarily collaborate with our competition. 

“So, I believe in a marketplace of good ideas and if we treat our employees better than other folks, then we want people to come and work here.”

One talent-attraction strategy that FloraCraft has used is a “return to Ludington” movement, in which the company targets talent originally from the area that has left.

That’s how FloraCraft ultimately landed CFO John Nielsen.

“Through networking within town, we were able to identify this former resident and connect with him a little over a year and a half ago. As we stayed in touch, we knew what his longer term goals were and when an opportunity arose here at FloraCraft, it made it very easy for us to say, ‘John, it’s time, we have an opportunity for you,’” Erwin said.

Phil Gable, vice president of extrusion for FloraCraft, has a similar story. He moved away from Ludington, acquired a master’s degree and served with the military before returning to the area and taking his post at FloraCraft.

“Being able to recruit these people to this area, we find we have a far greater opportunity to do it with people who are familiar with what northwestern Michigan has to offer,” Erwin said.

Fortifying a pipeline

Within such a tight-knit community, the role of West Shore Community College becomes amplified as a resource to develop talent for local businesses.

Crystal Young, director of the college’s Business Opportunity Center, said West Shore has regular conversations with area manufacturers.

“(Manufacturing) is changing every day with technology, with automation and with robotics,” Young said. “We really have to be in continuous communication with our manufacturers as to what they need. They’re pivoting on dimes and academia doesn’t always pivot on a dime.”

In October of 2020, the school partnered with the West Shore Educational Service District (ESD) to hire a talent pipeline coordinator to engage K-12 students and encourage talent development and retention in the area.

West Shore Community College also designs labs and curriculums based on the needs of area manufacturers. A few years ago, the school jointly purchased a CNC machine with UACJ Automotive Whitehall Industries Inc. The machine was the same type found on the shop floor at the company, giving the school an opportunity to train both students and new hires at Whitehall Industries.

Similarly, FloraCraft made a recent capital investment in robots to boost efficiency, which changed its talent needs.

“The West Shore program will be a funnel to bring people that will be trained in the operation of our facility,” Erwin said. “We work with them and provide a work study program for many of those students and it’s a great recruiting area for us.”

Just as important as bringing qualified talent through the door, cultivating talent is also a point of emphasis for Metalworks and area manufacturers.

Metalworks offers a program called UGotClass through West Shore Community College, which helps employees develop competencies in business that allow them to elevate to higher positions and pay grades. For shop floor workers, Metalworks offers its Master Series, which is similar to UGotClass. 

FloraCraft also places a strong emphasis on keeping employees engaged through ongoing training. It offers the FloraCraft Academy for high potential employees. This is a two-year curriculum akin to a college course. That has been on hold for the last six months but will return when FloraCraft is able to hold their sessions according to health guidelines.

“It’s something we’re really proud of,” Erwin said. “We’re providing excellent instruction including outside lecturers, who comment on specific topics. We know it’s really contributing to (employee) engagement.”

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