ZEELAND — Manufacturers have had to get creative in balancing the dual workforce needs of attracting new talent — particularly young people — and retaining their existing workers.
That’s the case for Zeeland-based Primera Plastics Inc., a manufacturer of plastic injection products for the automotive, office furniture and medical device industries.
“As with any sector right now, we’re struggling with labor (so) we’re trying to get creative in what we do,” said President and CEO Noël Cuellar. “We’ve had a culture change to more of a learning environment for everyone.”
Primera takes a two-pronged approach to the talent issue. On one hand, Cuellar has worked to instill a culture of continual learning throughout the organization, placing value on workers taking self-development and career advancement into their own hands.
The company offers its 136 employees a variety of classes, including a budget management course taught by PNC Bank so they can learn about personal finances, managing debt and other best practices, Cuellar said.
At the same time, Primera also partnered with West Ottawa High School to mentor students who have fallen behind in classes. Twice a month, Cuellar and other mentors from Primera meet with freshmen at the high school to encourage them to continue their studies and work toward getting passing grades.
Cuellar said that 67 percent of the mentored students passed their classes last semester. Prior to the mentorship program, not one of those students passed a class.
Primera also opened its doors to a team of upperclassmen for a paid co-op program where the students work three and a half hours per day, four days a week doing light assembly and other projects. During that time, the company also teaches students about communication and workplace behavior skills.
“How you shake a hand is important. How you present yourself is important,” Cuellar said. “We’re trying to let them know that an education can get you a job, but it’s your self-development that can create a fortune for you because that’s the person you become.”
In addition to the mentoring program, Primera provided two $5,000 grants to West Ottawa High School over the the last two years for families of students who need to pay to retake the classes they failed during the school year. This year, Primera will donate $10,000 to the school, Cuellar said.
All told, Cuellar has invested approximately $100,000 and countless hours into the program over the last two and a half years. Despite both the monetary investment and time commitment, Cuellar said it’s been worth the effort.
“Yes, this is an investment, but it is an investment in our young people and the future of our industry,” he said. “I could pocket the money, because it’s costing me money, but we have to risk it.”
It’s likely that the so-called talent shortage in West Michigan won’t abate anytime soon. The total number of jobs in West Michigan is expected to increase by about 10 percent through 2020, according to a 2015 Talent Assessment and Outlook report published by Grand Rapids-based Talent 2025 Inc. The report projects 21,220 additional production positions to open up during that time.
According to the report, manufacturing employers “are beginning to put a larger emphasis on career pathways for individuals joining their company. This is seen as increasingly essential to retaining entry-level talent longer than a couple years.”
That sentiment is something that Cuellar takes seriously, especially since he’s experienced firsthand the difference an education can make for a person’s career. As a first-generation immigrant to the United States in the late 1960s, Cuellar struggled in classes, graduating from high school with a 1.0 grade point average. He worked at a pickle factory following high school before taking his first college course at age 32. He later entered the trades before starting Primera Plastics in 1995.
“I had a late start in life and look what I was able to accomplish,” he said.
Primera’s switch to a learning-based culture and its focus on workforce development has paid off as the company continues to meet growing order volumes, Cuellar said.
This year, Primera invested $6 million in new equipment and facility upgrades, including temperature control for its production floor and additional injection molding machines. The company employs 136 workers and has grown annual revenues to more than $25 million.
While business has been brisk for Primera, Cuellar plans to maintain a moderate growth trajectory to avoid overextending the company in the case of another downturn in the business cycle, he said.
“We still remember the recession — that’s fresh in our minds,” Cuellar said. “We’re making sure we control the growth.”
Sidebar: MADE IN MICHIGAN Zeeland-based Primera Plastics Inc. is investing $100,000 into a talent attraction and retention program that includes mentoring high school students and funding numerous classes for its employees. While the program takes significant effort and resources, Primera President and CEO Noël Cuellar believes the investment in talent is essential to his company’s success. The plastic injection molder generates annual sales of more than $25 million.