In the tight labor market before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Bridgewater Interiors LLC competed mainly with other suppliers for workers.
The Detroit-based automotive seating manufacturer faces even stiffer competition from its supplier peers today. But now it's also up against McDonald's, Walmart, Amazon and other businesses spending big on employee recruitment to keep the lights on.
That competition has threatened the ability of Bridgewater and some other manufacturers to keep production lines running.
As Bridgewater executives saw the labor market tighten and competition increase, their chief concern was securing enough employees to keep operations going, said Elaine Tingle, vice president of human resources.
That proved especially challenging at the company's just-in-time Warren plant, which supplies seats for Ford's F-150 and Stellantis' Ram 1500. Despite the global microchip shortage that has forced sporadic production shutdowns across the industry, the automakers have prioritized their high-margin pickups, which meant no down time for Bridgewater."We had some close calls as far as the amount of people we had to work overtime," Tingle said. "The one thing you don't do in the automotive industry is shut the customer down."
Bridgewater's Warren plant, the largest of its three Michigan locations, was operating with around 1,100 employees over the summer, down from the 1,300 it usually employs. Hiring fairs were largely unsuccessful, drawing just a couple of applications per day, if any, Tingle said.
So, the company began offering $3,000 bonuses for new hires and $2,500 for employee referrals, and it increased hourly starting wages by a dollar to $17.50 and increased non-day-shift premiums by a dollar.
"We felt like we had to go above and beyond because there's a lot of other employers out there offering incentives," Tingle said. "You can almost go to McDonald's and Walmart and places like that and their starting wages are $15 and getting closer to our starting wage in manufacturing."
Advertising for hiring bonuses has become a common sight, from banners outside of manufacturing plants to signs at fast-food restaurants and retail shops. Employer incentives have helped fuel the so-called Great Resignation that's rippled through the workforce all the way up to the C-suite.
The bonuses at Bridgewater brought a lot of interest. The company received 350 applications Oct. 8-15 and hired around 120, working its way toward the goal of 200 new hires. The company is monitoring costs related to bonuses and wage increases, Tingle said, but investing in employee recruitment is necessary.
"You look at that versus the cost of shutting down a customer and jeopardizing business, then you kind of just do what you need to do," she said.
Hourly production and skilled trade workers have been the hardest to find and hold onto, according to a recent survey conducted by the Original Equipment Suppliers Association that includes responses from 175 manufacturers based in Michigan.
More than 70 percent of the companies surveyed said they increased wages to try to fill positions, while 46 percent offered signing bonuses and 20 percent boosted benefits.
In August, Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed average nonsupervisory hourly manufacturing wages reached $24.01, up from $22.87 in July 2020 and up from $20.55 in August 2016.
"Lack of qualified candidates remains the top hiring constraint as quality labor remains scarce," the OESA survey found. "Competition for other industries and wage demands remain prevalent… Offering retention and signing bonuses have been the most successful programs in offsetting the shortage of production employees."
Webasto Roof Systems Inc. is another supplier using wage increases to lure employees. The sunroof and convertible manufacturer, which has its North America base in Auburn Hills, bumped up hourly pay by more than 20 percent to a range of $17-$30, said Corey Stowell, vice president of human resources for Webasto Roof Systems Americas.
"Across all locations in the U.S., we have struggled to find talent due to the competitiveness of the market; there is a shortage of labor across all levels, both salaried and hourly," Stowell said in an email. "The most difficult positions to fill have been the ones with technical skillsets (robotics, mechanical, etc.). While it has made it more difficult, we have continued to operate."
The wage increases have worked for Webasto, as well. The company has hired 325 workers over the past few months for a total of 1,692 in Michigan. The company is still hiring for 400 positions as it prepares to launch production next year for a new plant in Plymouth Township and one in New Hudson.
In addition to wage increases, Stowell said the company rolled out retention and referral bonuses. He said Webasto's tuition reimbursement, training and development opportunities, and efforts to build a family-like culture have also helped it attract and keep employees.
"While our efforts are currently focused on recruiting … moving from recruiting to retention is something we're actively working toward as an organization," he said.
Retention is the next priority at Bridgewater, too. The company's $3,000 bonus comes in two installments – the first $1,500 is paid after 60 days on the job; the rest is paid after an additional 60 days. Tingle said there is a chance that employees will quit after collecting the bonus.
"That is a fear, and we are in discussions on how we handle that," she said.
She said she hopes the $2,500 referral bonus will help with retention. If an employee refers someone who gets hired, that employee receives $1,000 up front, then $500 after the new hire works for 120 days, then another $1,000 after they have served a full year on the job.
"So basically, we wanted our employees to kind of be ambassadors or coaches to help bring in new employees, and also our strategy there was, if they brought someone in, they would hopefully encourage them to stay," Tingle said.