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Companies struggle to fill jobs

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Joey Richardson performs a quality control step on a rod used in a vehicle shock on Monday at the KYB Americas Franklin manufacturing facility. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Joey Richardson performs a quality control step on a rod used in a vehicle shock on Monday at the KYB Americas Franklin manufacturing facility. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Local manufacturers and employers can teach a worker how to program a machine or inspect components coming off a line, but that person needs to come with a strong work ethic.

Finding workers who show up on time, work hard while on the clock and show a drive to improve is the biggest challenge local employers have in hiring new people.

At KYB Americas Corp. in Franklin, about one out of every five temporary workers doesn’t make it through the first 90 days on the job because they don’t show up or don’t work hard, director of administration Lance Clark said.

The people who are just looking for a paycheck are weeded out early based on attendance and performance. But the people who advance and get fully trained for their job almost never leave, Clark said.

Finding that right worker can take months, and a manufacturer might need to go through two or three 90-day probationary periods with workers before finding one worth keeping. If workers have technical skills such as welding, machining or past manufacturing experience, that’s a bonus, hiring officials said. But good work ethic, problem-solving ability, critical thinking skills and math and language skills are worth the most.

If a machine starts producing parts with flaws, a worker needs to be able to identify the problem and start running through a checklist to try to figure out what went wrong before going to a supervisor, Electro-Spec plant manager Mary Gordon said. If a line worker can’t quickly find a needed tool because they’re all jumbled together on a cart, managers want that person to offer a solution, NSK Corp. human resources manager Anthony Foster said.

A lack of those skills is the biggest roadblock to finding, hiring and keeping workers at local plants. They’re skills students and young adults don’t seem to be picking up in school, at home or from their friends, employers said. It’s the No. 1 complaint Johnson County Development Corp. staff heard from employers throughout the county when asked about problems they have with hiring, director of business development Dana Monson said.

Employers are stumped as to why students aren’t getting the drive, flexibility and pride in their work before they get to the workforce. Finding an effective way to teach those basic traits is something both businesses and schools are still trying to figure out, Gordon said.

Keeping employee turnover to a minimum is critical because companies have to invest a large amount of time and money in training employees for a specific job. NSK Precision America may need three months to a year to fully train someone to produce ball screws that are used in machine tools, some of which need to be precise down to a micrometer before they’re shipped out, plant manager Jeremy Peters said. At Electro-Spec, that training may last three to six months and is likely all new, since almost no one has experience doing the type of precious metal plating work that is done at the plant, Gordon said.

Those manufacturers almost exclusively promote from within, so even when hiring entry-level positions they want to make sure that person wants to stay long term and could develop into a supervisor or be trained to fill more skilled positions.

90-day tryouts

Even after a rigorous interview process, finding the right person can be difficult, Gordon said. Judging an applicant by school grades alone can be misleading. A C student who worked every summer, conducted a part-time job during the year and was involved in after-school activities can be a much better hire than an A student who doesn’t participate in activities outside school, Clark said.

“If you just have no drive, if you’re, ‘I got my high school diploma, and I want to sit on the couch, but my mom says I can’t, so I’ll go work at KYB,’ that’s not going to fly. We don’t want that person,” Clark said.

Companies like NSK and KYB use local staffing agencies to help find employees who might be suited to working in a factory. At KYB, new employees often are found through the company’s intent-to-hire program, meaning they work for 90 days, and then the company will decide whether to keep them full time. That helps identify who really wants to work, Clark said. Those first 90 days are a honeymoon period during which Clark expects everyone is trying to be on their best behavior, so if a person is showing up late or not focusing on training, it’s a good indicator that they will probably only get worse as time goes on, he said.

Human resources staff try to identify people who won’t be the best workers before they ever make it to the floor. The most common red flags are people who have hopped from job to job, have a history of being late or missing work, mention having clashed with co-workers or past supervisors or have spelling errors or poor writing on their application. If they lack those skills, they likely also lack the higher-level thinking that employers want.

Reviewing applications and conducting interviews can take weeks, so finding a good employee on the first try saves time.

One Click Ventures in Greenwood will get about 200 applications whenever openings for warehouse workers or customer service representatives are posted. Having that many applications offers a wide variety of resumes to consider and makes it easier to find candidates who have a steady work history and impress officials during interviews, chief operations officer Angie Stocklin said. The company has only one shift, which can make those positions more attractive to someone looking for a job, she said.

Problem-solving skills

Employers want to see a long work history with one employer or high school students who have worked multiple summers at the same place. Students who have participated in team sports or other after-school clubs also show they have a willingness to work with others, NSK Precision America human resources generalist Eve Hopper said.

Workers who can quickly identify and offer solutions are valuable because they work with the machines every day and often generate the best ideas to help improve efficiency in the factory. At NSK Corp., employees write up a short report about a problem they find in their work area, outline how that problem makes the job more dangerous or cuts down on efficiency and suggest a solution, Foster said. Those ideas are then graded on a scale of gold/silver/bronze and displayed in the plant for others to review.

Offering solutions is a practice they try to foster in all employees, but it’s easier if someone already has good problem-solving skills, he said.

Factories are trying to meet production deadlines and quotas, so managers need their employees to be able to solve a problem on the line quickly. If several components come off a plating machine with minor defects, a worker needs to be able to start narrowing down potential causes. If they can’t fix it themselves, managers at least expect that they’ll have whittled down the possible causes before reporting it, Gordon said.

“When we run into issues, what steps do you have to follow in order to figure it out?” Gordon said. “‘I’ve checked this, this, this and this and everything is good.’ Come to us with everything you’ve done.”

When interviewing students coming out of high school, employers said those teens are often missing both the motivation and critical thinking skills they are seeking.

At NSK, they’re often running a little understaffed to keep costs down and not have to lay off workers during slow periods. When orders increase, employees may be asked to work overtime or weekends. Some workers will pass

on a full-time job on the night shift because they only want to work days or don’t want to have to work beyond 40 hours, said Brandi Weddle, assistant human resources manager.

KYB has recently hired several Burmese immigrants because they’re willing to work the available shifts, while many American workers will turn them down or not show up, Clark said.

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