ZEELAND — The talent crunch has created a conundrum for many West Michigan manufacturers.
Given the ever-shrinking pool of available workers, companies have turned to hiring employees who may lack the experience required to succeed in sophisticated manufacturing positions. Those same workers may also struggle with basic employment skills including communication, attendance and social aptitude.
That talent gap — both on the technological and life skills sides — has led manufacturers to develop their own internal training programs. However, creating in-house programs can be very costly and can often result in rapid turnover rates with workers leaving shortly after completing their training.
Enter Blu Perspective LLC, a Zeeland-based light assembler and quality control company that primarily serves the automotive and office furniture industries. The firm recently launched its own Manufacturing Readiness Program, aimed at providing its customers with trained employees from its own workforce.
For years, Blu Perspective has maintained its own internal training program to help bolster its workforce by teaching workers attendance, attention to detail, communication and other general employment skills.
“We started letting (our employees) go out (to our customers) for job experience and our customers were delighted with the caliber of candidates we were putting over there and started to explore ‘how could we use you as a source for direct hires,”’ said Corbin Collet, president and CEO of Blu Perspective.
Now the company has expanded that into a formal program that focuses more on the manufacturing process with the intent of sending those workers to its customers on a permanent or contractual basis once they have completed the program.
“We can provide some good-paying jobs but eventually these are folks who aspire to more so we’re just trying to help them do that,” Collet said. “We understand turnover, we understand how to develop talent, we understand how to work from that entry level and get to people providing value. We’re recognizing that and trying to work with our customers to give them that opportunity rather than them developing that organically.”
The benefits to Blu Perspective aren’t purely altruistic. The program provides the company with a value-added service that drives bottom line revenue while linking the organization closer to its customers.
For those customers, Blu Perspective’s program absorbs the risks and expenses incurred if they were to develop their own internal training program while avoiding the high turnover rates associated with temporary employment agencies, which can reach 500 percent in some cases, sources said.
Moreover, Blu Perspective trains its workers on the same equipment they’ll use once they transition to working for the customer.
The program also serves to inject new workers into the manufacturing workforce, rather than recycling talent from within the sector, Collet said.
“That’s where we feel our mission is,” he said. “The opportunity for our team members is to give them the ability to raise their value by getting some training and for our customers to get new employees rather than swapping from one company to another.”
So far the company is supplying workers to three of its customers and is working to secure agreements with two additional companies. Overall, the program represents less than 10 percent of the company’s business, but Collet believes it has the potential to grow to 20 percent in the near future.
TEACHING LIFE SKILLS
While trade-specific skills have largely been addressed to some degree, employment groups are now beginning to tackle a general deficiency in life skills among the people remaining in the labor pool.
“There’s a desire among the larger organizations to have a workforce that is very capable,” said Jason Reep, director of learning and inclusion at The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids. “This whole concept of life skills training is something we’re looking at. How do we help prepare employees as an outsider not necessarily as an inside university? … You can go to M-Tec (Michigan Technical Education Centers) and get the technical skills, (but) these are life skills and that’s valuable.”
Primarily, Blu Perspective focuses on the importance of attendance with its workers, many of whom struggle with day care and other challenges. The organization stresses the importance of the individual in the manufacturing process.
“If you come from retail or fast food, you’re not tied into the fact that if you miss a day of work or if you go on a long break, you could actually shut down a line,” Collet said. “It’s just a different environment.”
Participants in the program — which spans five months — work alongside career coaches that help the employees acclimate to the work environment and assist in issues with attendance or other challenges they may be facing. Blu Perspective also pairs that on-the-job training with online material.
Because Blu Perspective focuses on light assembly and quality control work, the company can ease its workers into the manufacturing process as opposed to exposing them immediately to the often fast-paced environment, Collet said.
“Trying to make that transition is very difficult,” Collet said. “I think we take the time to let them ease into the pace instead of throwing them into the pace of manufacturing. Not everybody can cut that right away. By working through the system, they slowly get acclimated to what that is.”
A VIABLE MODEL?
While many companies have shifted focus to teaching life skills, Reep of The Employers’ Association said that Blu Perspective’s training model is unique among companies in West Michigan.
However, with the cost of training edging ever higher and given the high turnover rates some companies experience, Reep questions the financial viability of the model.
“If you look at the cost of hiring someone and training them up, you’re talking a lot of money,” he said. “You’ve sought the employees out, trained them and then you passed them on to someone else. That’s a big investment. If that works for them financially because they feel like they get more business or feel like (they’re) supporting the community, there’s probably value.”
For its part, Blu Perspective has some agreements with its customers to ensure its workers don’t jump ship shortly after being hired, but it does not require contractual obligations for any of the employees it sends to its customers through its program. Ultimately, it bears the lionshare of the risk, Collet said.
Blu Perspective’s program fits with what Mindy Ysasi, executive director of The Source, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization that supports employees, calls “work hardening” or worker readiness programs.
“To me, the idea isn’t new, it’s just a different way to think about staffing,” Ysasi said.
Ysasi did note the program would help companies skirt temporary employment agencies as sources for workers, which many criticize for the quality of their placements, while also growing a pipeline of qualified workers.
“It’s their quality assurance,” she said.
This sort of training program may also help companies stand out among people searching for work.
“Companies have to differentiate themselves because no one has found this golden pool of workers,” Ysasi said.
Ultimately, employers’ success when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent boils down to listening to and supporting workers.
“When employees know that the entire leadership team is invested in them, they’re likely to give that consideration when they’re tempted to move to another company for 25 cents per hour more,” Ysasi said. “I think when employers stop thinking about just me, we’re going to have better results.”