I know as many people as possible here by their names. I’m constantly walking the floor during the day to inspect equipment and, at the same time, check on our people. My father and grandfather taught us that it was important to be on the floor to get the pulse of our operations and our culture. In the last couple of years, workers are showing up with a lot of stress and anxiety, and we can see that and give them counseling. Frictions still crop up, but we arrange meetings with supervisors early on to head off real trouble.
Q: I imagine your biggest challenge is finding workers.
Hoffer-Canning: We were facing recruitment headwinds since before the pandemic. With low unemployment rates and declining birthrates and a shrinking workforce, it’s been a challenge. I’ve made a point of visiting local high schools to get to our future workers early and have noticed some serious misconceptions.
We are finding that 17-year-olds view manufacturing as something their grandfathers did. Manufacturing they assume is dark and dirty. I was horrified at what I heard. Our modern plant is automated and bright and clean. For recruiting, we had to create a whole new image for manufacturing: It’s highly automated and very technical and pays well.
Q: The city of Elgin was once home to Elgin National Watch, the biggest watchmaker in the world and an industrial beacon in a town dominated by manufacturing. But that history has been lost.
Hoffer-Canning: Even older people here don’t remember. We brought out guidance counselors from the local school district recently and they were surprised. They mentioned that a lot of their kids were computer gamers and assumed that their skills couldn’t translate to a factory. Quite the contrary, we pointed out that the manual dexterity and critical thinking and attention to detail that gamers have is just what we can use here.
Then we showed these counselors our compensation statements: We start people here at $16 an hour, and with paid vacation and benefits and bonuses, total compensation can run to $52,000. And the opportunity for advancement, even for those without a college degree, is great. With pay and benefits, the average manufacturing worker today in America earns $92,000 a year.
But that hasn’t been the perception, even in Elgin, where schools have redefined career paths for their students as focused on four-year college programs. College isn’t for everybody, we remind people. And for those who fall short, too many fall back on jobs in fast food and hospitality, where pay is low.
Q: How urgent is your need for workers?
Hoffer-Canning: We have 30 to 40 open positions right now, which is very high for us. We had a big increase in retirements during the pandemic, and also more people deciding they wanted to do something else, so our turnover rose to 15 percent to 20 percent annualized over the past two years. Our workforce is aging, which is why we need to focus on young people.
Q: There’s a new phenomenon among employers like you in which workers get hired and then simply don’t show up, right?
Hoffer-Canning: It’s true. People have an interview appointment or a first day of work and then don’t appear, with no phone call or email of explanation. When we hire somebody today, we figure there is a 30 percent chance we’re being ghosted. Maybe people have gotten other offers or jobs elsewhere or whatever. We never know, because they mysteriously stop communicating with us. We try to follow up and find out what went wrong, but they won’t even cooperate with that. It really is bad manners.