Few local executives can provide a better view of the manufacturing industry than Nelson Jacboson, whose Grand Haven-based JSJ Corp. is entering its 101st year in business and features a portfolio of companies with an international presence. Jacobson said the pandemic gave rise to a host of complexities in the supply chain as well as worker retention. Those challenges are likely to continue into next year, along with uncertainty about how the business community approaches mandatory COVID-19 vaccines.
With facilities throughout the world, how did COVID-19 affect your workers directly and how did JSJ keep workers safe on the job?
We had an incredibly low infection rate and absolutely none that came directly from the facility — and that’s globally, which includes where we’re based in China. So I think everyone is on board that we have to work differently. But we’re lucky. We’re an older company and even with all of our growth we have a lot of tenure in the factory and a lot of great leadership at all levels. I’m just really grateful to them.
Looking ahead to 2021, is manufacturing out of the woods with COVID? What are your thoughts on how a new administration will affect the industry?
Another (concern) is: Will business continue? Will this next wave cause something? With the new administration, this divisiveness, will it settle down so we can focus on the business? Many of the things President Trump was doing, they were things that needed to be addressed, but there probably was a much more constructive way to do them, especially for us global manufacturers. Tariffs were just this shock that we took. So, we’ve dealt with sort of two years of trauma. And we know the tariffs accomplished absolutely nothing.
Workforce shortages before and especially during COVID have been a major problem for manufacturing. Has it been an issue for JSJ?
I have some really good friends (at other companies) that are really struggling and I think an advantage is our culture. Our retention rate was just extraordinary. Our HR teams, the senior leadership starting with myself, (COO) Tom Rizzi and (Executive Vice President) Eric Johnson, just kept communicating with the employees about what we were doing, why and how. We provided 32 hours of full wages for three weeks because we thought this would be over in three weeks, so we just paid them. I think they understood that we were taking their health as a first priority. Our retention and return rate globally was phenomenal. I’m sure there have been shifts or issues, especially in the transition where there might have been some shortages, but we’ve just not had that problem.
Were you forced to lay off employees? Has hiring resumed again?
When business was down we did have to make some reductions in forces and some layoffs and those are always challenging. But I think people understand. We’re starting to hire again, especially in the engineering ranks. If anything, we’re seeing more people coming to West Michigan. That’s kind of an underlying benefit of this pandemic. We’re seeing a lot of interesting resumes out of Chicago and the east side where things are more challenging. That’s been a really pleasant surprise, especially for the engineering skilled trades.
With vaccines starting to roll out, have you had any discussions about mandatory vaccinations for your workforce?
We’re just starting (those conversations). Boy, this is going to be a complex one. I think what we have to do is be very thoughtful. It’s an interesting one. It’s the same as the legalization of marijuana — how is that affecting this? I think we’re going to have to be very thoughtful. We’re going to have to be respectful of people’s rights. We eradicated smallpox and polio with vaccines and measles so it’s not unprecedented in history.
Disruptions in the supply chain have also been a big problem. Have those settled down, and how have you dealt with them?
It’s just so complicated and you just have to work it. Again, I think we’re very blessed because we work really hard to be a good, good customer at every level with understanding how we can cooperate. It’s not a problem — it really is a resource allocation (issue). We just have to put a lot of extra effort into ensuring that we have (enough) and communicating if there is going to be a shortage of something. Our customers have to communicate to us what are the schedules and we have to make sure we have the parts. We’ve gotten a lot smarter. We probably learned tremendous things about ways to improve our supply chain.