Manufacturing First CEO Roundtable LuncheonWisconsin manufacturers say they have a positive view of the industry’s vitality, yet they also acknowledge that more work is needed to strengthen and grow the industry.

This week, six manufacturing leaders came together for a CEO Roundtable Luncheon at Manufacturing First, a two-day expo and conference in Green Bay. Coupled with robust discussion from the audience, insights and best practices for building on the industry’s vitality and attracting and retaining a qualified workforce emerged—information that other Wisconsin manufacturers can adapt for their own businesses.

Networking for Growth

Mike Mallwitz, president and CEO of Busch Precision in Milwaukee, talked about how his company is getting more involved in the local community and networking with customers, vendors, government officials and others as a means to attract workers.

“We look at recruiting the same way we look at business development,” said Mallwitz.  By building relationships and establishing trust, all parties then start to “look out for one another.”

“Those dialogues are valuable,” added Mallwitz, noting that two Busch executives—one a vice president and one a service manager—joined Busch after being displaced from previous jobs.

Breaking down siloes and getting businesses to better work together has been an increasingly successful strategy in the greater Milwaukee area, added Alan Petelinsek, of Power Test, Inc. in Sussex.

Supporting and working with schools is yet another avenue for connecting with talent. For instance, Petelinsek, recalled how in speaking with a local school superintendent, he learned that the school’s automotive program was on the chopping block because the school couldn’t afford a car for students to work on. Petelinsek offered to pay for a car, which cost just $600.

“We now have an excellent relationship with the school district, and they feed their best students to the company,” he said.

Homegrown Talent

In a recent manufacturing CEO survey conducted for Manufacturing First, 93 percent of respondents indicated that they are working to enhance employees’ skill sets, and 63 percent said they are working on talent attraction and retention strategies.

Providing employees with the opportunity to build their skills has been critical for Green Bay’s Lindquist Machine Corporation, said the company’s president, Mark Kaiser. Lindquist is currently sending some of its associates to an engineering technology program at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton once a week.

“We do those things because that’s what we need to do to have talent,” said Kaiser.

Providing this opportunity also supports Kaiser’s strategy to hire employees based on how well they fit with the company’s culture, then training them on the technical aspects of the job.

“We’re home-growing talent instead of going for experience, because one, we can’t find it, and two, stealing from the guy next door doesn’t solve the problem,” said Kaiser.

Steve Daigle, President of Tomahawk’s Daigle Brothers, Inc., has employed a similar strategy to retain employees. For instance, when one of his best employees who was passionate about the field put in his notice to take a different job that paid more, Daigle retained the employee by training him in other aspects of the company and increase his worth.

“You have to take a risk sometimes to retain employees,” said Daigle.

Yet another possibility offered from the audience is looking at non-traditional worker populations, such as individuals who have been incarcerated. As audience members discussed, these individuals often gain skills while in prison that are readily transferable to the manufacturing sector.

To handle ebbs and flows in the business, a strategy Power Test leverages is cross-training employees so welders can machine, machinists can fabricate and so on. When employees aren’t “pigeonholed” into a specific skill set, this provides more stable employment, which can be a concern for some when considering the manufacturing field, said Petelinsek.

Better Tell Manufacturing’s Story

Another theme of the luncheon is that manufacturers need to get more involved in showcasing the industry.

“We have to tell the story, and it’s a great story. We’ve started to do that … but we have to keep pushing, because no one is going to do it but us,” said Kaiser.

Two relatively easy ways to do this are opening the doors of manufacturing facilities to the community and working closely with schools. For instance, Wausau Windows and Wall Systems participates in the annual North Central Wisconsin Heavy Metal Bus Tour, where students from across north central Wisconsin tour area facilities to learn about innovative careers in manufacturing.

“Each year, 3,500 eighth-graders get a chance to go through and see manufacturing in action,” says Jim Waldron, president of Wausau Windows and Wall Systems.

However, for some schools there is a gap between introducing students to manufacturing and highlighting manufacturing as a career option.

“The biggest piece is the guidance counselors; we haven’t gotten them up to speed,” said Kurt Baer, co-owner of Mid City Steel in La Crosse. With academic career planning now required in public schools for students in grades 6 through 12, this presents an excellent opportunity to “pitch” the manufacturing sector, adds Bear.

All panelists also agreed that they need to figure out how to better connect with parents to support manufacturing as a career choice.

“How do we reach out to them and give them the manufacturing story and tell them that this is a great career choice. That’s going to take some work,” said Kaiser.

Panelists also encouraged other manufacturers to give their women employees a more active role in promoting the industry to help bring more women into the field, whether that’s on the shop floor or in the office.

“We have at least have some females in this room, but we need more,” said Mallwitz. “Let them be ambassadors of this profession, and maybe next year we can get a couple ladies on this panel.”