Wisconsin has lots of cheese. And dairy farms. And a record-low level of unemployment — teetering around 3 percent.
Yes, Heavy Metal is again wading into the worker-shortage issue … after a stop at the cheese shop for a bag of curds and some smokies, naturally.
Seljan Co. Inc., a rotational molder, injection molder and metal fabricator in Lake Mills, Wis., has had success in a program with Opportunities Inc., a rehabilitation program in Fort Atkinson, Wis.
People with disabilities want to work, and they're great employees, according to Dru Laws, senior vice president of Seljan's plastics division. In October, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch presented Seljan with an award for the company's efforts to employ citizens with disabilities. She was keynote speaker at Opportunities Inc.'s 50th anniversary celebration.
Laws said things are changing. The old reliance on the central "sheltered workshop," where companies send work, and people with disabilities do jobs such as subassembly, sorting and packing, has been changing in recent years. Federal funding is pushing the change.
"Some of that funding is now only available if companies like Opportunities Inc. start placement programs and getting these people do work out in regular industry with regular folks doing regular jobs for regular money," Laws said. "So it's kind of an inclusion program."
Laws talked about Seljan's hiring workers with disabilities — and another program to hire people from a local correctional facility — in a presentation during the Association of Rotational Molders' Spring Executive Forum, held March 25-27 in Orlando, Fla. Laws is the current president of ARM.
Laws said the lieutenant governor laid out some sobering statistics for Wisconsin: 100,000 open jobs and a manufacturing turnover rate of 47 percent.
"The employee turnover among employees with disabilities is only 8 percent," Laws said. "At Seljan Co., our employee turnover for those with disabilities is 0 percent. None of them have ever left once we've hired them."
And yet, Laws said, the population of U.S. citizens with disabilities has the highest level of under-employment.
"Eighty-five percent of those with disabilities want to work in the workforce. So you got a great group of people. It's the best workforce you'll ever find and there's tons of them."
For Dru Laws, there's a personal side. His 11-year-old son, Kaden, has Downs syndrome. He is hoping that in the future, Kaden will find gainful employment.
"I'm trying to do things for people's kids today what I hope that other people will do for my son 10 years from now," he said.
Laws said Seljan leadership supports the effort. It's partly altruistic, but also fills a real need. Rotomolding, in particular, is an industry that really struggles to find good employees.
The first person that Opportunities Inc. brought to work at Seljan has some mental disabilities. He worked for 12 weeks, supported by a coach. At the of the period, Seljan hired him full-time. Laws said he is now a key guy in the injection molding department.
"We have continued to work with Opportunities Inc. on every program they do," Laws said.
Laws said the workers with disabilities have lunch and coffee breaks with the regular staff, and participate in employee meetings. The experience can be very moving and inspiring. Their enthusiasm rubs off on the other employees.
"We're hiring all these people, making legitimate money, doing legitimate work, and they love it," he said.
Opportunities Inc. has started a new program where from four to six employees go to Seljan and get vocational training in a conference room every morning. At the end of the day, they go back in to the conference room for a wrap-up session.
The people are spread different departments. The coach checks on them throughout the day.
"Between these programs, we're also hiring people from Opportunities Inc. every day," Laws said. Now the company has eight full-time workers from the program, in injection molding, rotomolding and metal fabrication.
Laws said Seljan also employs about six to eight people who are serving time in a correctional facility. They get paid a normal full-time wage, and get bused to and from the factory.
"These people from the correctional facility are so loyal, because they would rather be here at work. They never come late. They never leave early."
In this age of companies scrambling to find factory employees, Laws said it makes sense to think broadly.
"It's this golden opportunity that so few people take advantage of, and everybody should be doing it," he said.
Laws has had a good career in rotational molding. He's an authority on the subject and a frequent speaker. Now he is ARMs' president. But working with the disabled, giving them a chance and helping his own company at the same time is special.
"This has been probably the most impactful thing I've done in my career," he said.