MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota is the third-largest rotomolding state, owing to its good location and strong work ethic. The trouble is, it's getting harder to find workers at all.
Even with normal unemployment levels, it isn't easy to find men and women to work in a rotational molding plant. Throw in a minuscule jobless rate — the Twin Cities area stands at just 2.4 percent, the state is at 2.6 percent — and the task gets even tougher.
``There's a real shortage of qualified people who want to work. But that applies to all of our plants, not just Minnesota. It's not a glamorous job by any means. It's hot and noisy,'' Thomas J. Smith, president and chief executive officer of Norwesco Inc., said at his headquarters in St. Bonifacius.
A report issued last year by Plastics Custom Research Services of Advance, N.C., said Minnesota had 13 rotomolding plants in 1996. Ohio ranked first in the report, with 24 plants, followed by California, with 20.
Plastics News data shows Minnesota now has about 20 rotomolding factories employing about 580 people. Another 135-plus work at Minnesota's three major rotational mold makers — Al-Cast Mold & Pattern Inc. in Ham Lake, Viking Pattern & Mold Co. in Blaine and Lakeland Mold Co. in Brainerd. The total industry, including molders and mold makers, generates more than $100 million in annual sales.
Molders turn out everything from mundane white farm tanks used to spray fields, to highly engineered structural products, to fluoropolymer-lined tanks for the semiconductor industry. Many of the factories are in small towns ringing the Twin Cities area of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Location is a key. Minnesota is home to big firms like Polaris Industries Inc. and Arctic Cat Inc., competitors in the snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle and personal watercraft markets, and Tennant Co., which makes floor cleaning machines. A large local boat industry buys lots of seats, fuel tanks and other rotomolded parts.
Norwesco, with $43 million in sales, placed in the No. 7 spot on Plastics News' rotational molders ranking — making it Minnesota's biggest molder. But for a roto-kingpin, Norwesco occupies a humble headquarters in tiny St. Bonifacius, a town of 1,180 people with a single stoplight. The factory looks out onto a small lake. The ``St. Bonnee'' plant, as Norwesco calls it, has three rotomolding machines, making it by far the biggest of Norwesco's nine plants, most of which have just one machine to turn out huge tanks for their own local market.
``We're just the opposite,'' Smith said. ``We're pounding out big pounds of resin with very few people.''
Two other Minnesota companies, both custom molders, rank in the top 20 of Plastics News' list: Solar Plastics Inc. is No. 13 with sales of $21.8 million and Pawnee Rotational Molding Co. is No. 20 with sales of $14 million.
Norwesco, a long-time injection and compression molder in Minneapolis, started rotomolding in 1980. Twelve years later, the company spun off injection and compression molding to focus strictly on making big tanks.
Solar Plastics is based in Minneapolis. When Solar wanted to build a new plant in 1996, President Chuck Carlsen didn't look far — to Delano, a town of 3,500 outside of the city. The plant has three Ferry rotomolders and a fourth one on order. After that, Solar plans to expand the plant.
Solar employs 135 at the factories — 95 at its headquarters and 40 in Delano.
Solar spawned another Minneapolis rotomolder, Aggressive Industries Inc. President Tomm Berquist said his father, D. Don Berquist, sold his interest in Solar and founded Aggressive in 1972 in St. Paul. The firm added a second plant and corporate office in Minneapolis. Today the 70-employee company is best known for its commercial floating docks and storage and refuse containers.
``Now we need another facility,'' Tomm Berquist said. He said the next plant will be in the Twin Cities area.
Why build a new plant in Minnesota? People and closeness to markets. ``This is where the bulk of our work force is from, and I'm not interested in moving it,'' Berquist said.
Don King, vice president of operations, agreed. ``You get good people,'' he said. ``They stay with companies. The plant in Minneapolis has a lot of people that have been with the firm for 25 years.''
As a new plant, Delano is bright and comfortable — in other words, light years away from the typical rotomolding plant. That good work environment, and the fact that Solar offers training and high-tech skills, makes it easier to find employees.
Carlsen said the problem is not unique to rotomolding. ``When you sit down with any group of business people today, finding good people and keeping them is a challenge.''
The problem of finding employees is not restricted to Minnesota, said Thomas Niland, president of the Association of Rotational Molders of Oak Brook, Ill.
``Nationwide, employment is mostly at full — anybody who wants a job can have one. ARM is writing a curriculum for junior colleges and trade schools. Education of entry-level workers is going to be a boon to the industry,'' said Niland, who is also president of rotomolder Niland Co. of El Paso, Texas.
``Rotational molding is growing at about double the rate of other processes. There's a lot of technological breakthroughs on the horizon that should increase growth in the future, such as reducing cycle times and increasing automation,'' Niland said.
The labor issue also is driving technology. With fewer workers available and the need to pay higher wages to get workers, automation is becoming more attractive, he said.
The reason Premier Plastics Inc. is located in Minnesota hits you over the head right away. The town of Wyoming is a center of boat making and retailing. President Bob Menne III said water-blessed Minnesota is the No. 2 state for boat manufacturing, after Michigan.
Now Premier Plastics is gearing up for its second rotomolding machine. The company will need to at least double employment, from the current three production workers, because of new orders.
``The general work ethics are excellent, but getting good people is difficult,'' said Jerry Wellen, Premier Plastics' vice president.
Pawnee Rotational Molding Co., one of the veteran Minneapolis rotomolders, is in Maple Plain, just five miles from Solar's Delano factory. The company turns out playground equipment such as sliding boards, fuel tanks for military vehicles and other custom products.
Pawnee won the Association of Rotational Molders' 1997 Product of the Year Award for a frame for a floor sweeper for another Minnesota company, Tennant Co. of Golden Valley. The part, Pawnee's most-complex ever, has 41 inserts.
Pawnee began in 1947 as Molded Products Inc., a compression molder of children's toys. The company bought its first rotomolding machine in 1961.
The state's most exotic rotomolder is Fluoroware Inc. of Chaska, about 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis. The company rotomolds and injection molds Teflon fluoropolymer parts for the semiconductor industry.
Like other firms, Fluoroware feels the employment pinch. When it was looking for a location for a plant to make fluoropolymer sheetlined containers, Fluoroware ruled out its headquarters city because of Chaska's low unemployment. Instead, the firm built about 30 miles west, in rural Gaylord.
``That was a key factor to locate that facility there,'' said Bruce Thompson, molding manager.
But just because you're in a small town doesn't mean workers line up for jobs. Custom Ag Products Inc. started a rotomolding shop, Custom Roto-Mold Inc., in 1994 to make tanks for its Redball sprayers. As its name implies, the firm has expanded into custom work. Both companies are based in Benson, population 3,000.
In the past year, the firm has hired 30. Unfortunately, Custom Roto-Mold is dwarfed by two other agricultural sprayer makers in town that employ about 500, said Corey Claussen, sales manager.
``There's a lot of applicants, but the retention level's not very good,'' Claussen said.
It's a different story in Brainerd, where unemployment is running about 6.5-7 percent with downsizing in some of the local industries, said Larry Paulson, president of Brainerd-based Image Rotomolding Enterprises.
``We're seeing some very decent people walk through the door,'' he said.