GRAND RAPIDS — Many West Michigan mold manufacturers are looking to get ahead of the oncoming wave of employee retirements by hiring more employees this year.
It’s already happening at General Die & Engineering Inc., a Grand Rapids-based precision machining company. General Die plans to hire five to 10 employees over the next year to combat the aging workforce, including mold makers, CNC machinists and a night operator, said John Rose, the company’s vice president of finance.
“As our workforce ages, we have people leave or retire, and we need to replace them with people that can get experience with the people … here now,” Rose told MiBiz.
However, the company isn’t just looking for “bodies” to fill openings. Rather, it wants to train younger people to fill those skilled positions, he said.
The move from General Die aligns with the findings of a recent American Mold Builders Association (AMBA) wage and benefits report, which found that 75 percent of mold makers nationwide plan to hire people in 2018, up from 65 percent a year ago.
“Across the industry, we’ve had people saying they are trying to hire,” said Ashley Burleson, analytics manager for the AMBA. “As a reflection of that, we saw several different key positions rise up a significant amount in median pay.”
Burleson cited entry-level mold apprentices and mold techs as positions with rising wages.
According to the AMBA, 42 percent of employees at mold manufacturers are in the 46-60 age group. As the age of the workforce swells, more toolmakers need to hire “younger talent,” so they’re offering more competitive benefits and compensation than they were in 2016, Burleson said. That includes a 2.2-percent increase in overall compensation across the majority of job categories in the last year, she added.
The dearth of talent and increasing wage pressures have pushed West Michigan-based mold builders to get creative in their training and recruitment strategies, including spreading the message about career opportunities in the industry to young students in an attempt to fill the workforce pipeline. In other cases, employers are beefing up their benefits packages or even paying employees to jump ship and come to work for them.
“When you look at a 4.1 percent unemployment rate, you have to do something to try and separate out (from other companies),” Burleson told MiBiz. “If you are looking at the mold building industry … you have to get young people to even understand what mold building is.
“Even in areas that are very dense in manufacturing like West Michigan, I think awareness has to be key.”
For example, Burleson said leaders in manufacturing must do what they can to get “kids through the doors” to see what the industry is like today, namely how more companies are incorporating technology and automation on their shop floors.
“It’s not just one repetitive job, over and over,” she said. “It’s hands-on, it’s very intellectual and analytical. Getting students to understand that this (field) is an option that has a really neat future and a lot of new technologies coming in (is important).”
Grand Rapids-based Paragon Die & Engineering Co. also looks to hire multiple positions over the next year, and has recently posted job openings for mold makers.
“As far as a particular position, we fill … as the need arises,” said Heidi Poll, marketing director at Paragon, which specializes in engineering and manufacturing plastic injection and compression molds. “We are in the transition of fluid hiring for machine capabilities with our new expansion, so we don’t plan on bringing in 40 new people or anything like that, but finding the right skilled craftsmen to fill those positions is definitely a need of ours.”
FOCUSING ON TRAINING
Every manufacturing company needs to approach the aging workforce differently, said Laurie Harbour, president and CEO of Harbour Results Inc., a Southfield-based research firm that tracks various industrial sectors.
Some companies are focusing on training and opportunities at colleges and universities, while others are targeting younger demographics, Harbour told MiBiz.
“Companies are working very hard and closely with high schools and middle schools,” she said. “They are having open houses to bring students and parents in to show that it’s high tech, not an ugly environment.”
Harbour added that many mold makers are trying to “catch” students while they are in sixth grade, “getting them excited about working in high school.”
“They may hire an intern, pay 12 bucks an hour, and give them on-the-job training,” Harbour said. “Most people who are finding success are working really early; some are actually hiring in high school. It’s all about getting them excited about working in high school.”
One company that had success with bringing students on to its factory floor is Seabrook Plastics Inc., a Tier 2 automotive supplier that also produces a line of gas masks under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“We love to have people come in to visit our facility,” said Bill Veldboom, general manager and COO of the Norton Shores-based company. “We find that it gives our team members an opportunity to tell their story. It also provides a great opportunity to learn from the questions, observations and recommendations of people who visit. We try to have some type of visit at least two times per month.”
It’s a similar story at General Die, according to Rose.
“We always like to have experienced people, but we have also hosted a couple events (including a) job shadowing on Feb. 2 with high school students. We also have college students tour our facility,” said Rose, who didn’t disclose the benefits and wages at General Die but said the company offers packages to recent hires that fall in line with other companies.
Of the 120 companies AMBA surveyed, 86 percent were based in the Midwest. The report found 85 percent of the jobs mold makers aim to fill in the next 12 months were for technical positions.
Last year, positions including assembly operators, general managers, information systems managers and press operators received a 10-percent wage increase, according to the report. Other positions, including operators, inspectors, purchasing agents and sales managers/directors, saw a 4-percent increase in wages.
“We have found that (our health and benefits package) attracts people who think more long-term and value these benefits and our (profit-sharing) model,” said Veldboom, who plans to hire more employees at Seabrook Plastics in 2018. “For new team members, including younger talent, we have a thorough training program and have developed a progressive job structure that creates an incentive and reward to learn more skills and be highly flexible.”
Employees at Seabrook Plastics vary in ages, and when the company loses an employee, it’s usually due to retirement, Veldboom said.
“We use a temporary-to-hire process and offer permanent full-time employment to those that buy into that philosophy,” he said. “Seabrook also offers an attractive incentive to current team members that are able to attract potential new employees that fit our culture and values.”
According to Burleson at AMBA, many mold makers appear concerned about the current state of workforce development practices.
Among the AMBA’s findings, 100 percent of employers reported “issues” with workforce development, a jump from 60 percent to 70 percent in past surveys.
Burleson said some of the problems stem from a disparity among larger manufacturers and smaller manufacturers in the availability of resources, time and money.
“Smaller shops are still struggling, mainly because of time and resources,” Burleson said. “You may have the president of the company still on the floor, putting out fires, as opposed to being out in the schools and working with students.”
As a result, Harbour fears that the industry may be nearing a point where “we are going to retire more people than we are going to be able to bring in.”
Harbour said some manufacturers are ramping up recruitment efforts in ways she doesn’t “love,” such as offering employees signing bonuses for moving from one company to another.
“(They) are giving a person a $1 to $2 raise by taking an employee from another company,” Harbour said. “The industry is swamped. I don’t love the practice. It’s inflating wages temporarily, but we are seeing more apprentices in the business.”