GRAND RAPIDS — Tier 1 automotive supplier Gentex Corp. has hired roughly 500 new employees over the past two and a half months, making a major dent in the Zeeland-based company’s unfilled positions.
A few hundred of those new hires “for sure” came aboard because of a new child care initiative that the company is launching that will provide hundreds of discounted, onsite child care slots for first- and second-shift employees.
The talent attraction and retention strategy appears to be paying off for Ottawa County’s largest employer, which also has introduced Spanish-speaking production lines, a grant program that provides workers with equity in the company after their first year, and a new Grand Rapids production facility that aims to eliminate transportation burdens.
Gentex President and CEO Steve Downing told MiBiz that news of the child care program, launched in partnership with Ottawa County early education nonprofit ODC Network, brought in droves of new workers.
“When they came in, they were basically saying that we want to get working here now so when (the child care program launches) we’re not trying to come in at the last minute and hope there’s spots left, so people were trying to secure their spot in line,” Downing said in an interview Thursday outside of the Automotive Suppliers Symposium at Grand Valley State University’s downtown Grand Rapids campus.
The annual event, now in its 24th year, showcased trends in auto-sector M&A, vehicle production forecasts, and ongoing barriers to and opportunities for growth.
But Downing — along with Shape Corp. President and CEO Mark White and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — highlighted perhaps one of the auto sector’s biggest challenges: talent.
“This is not something we’ve solved, it’s something we’re trying to get better at everyday,” Downing said during a presentation about Gentex’s compensation program, which offers employees after their first year a $5,000 restricted equity stake in the company that can realize capital gains over time.
The company’s Spanish-speaking production line started with seven to 10 people in 2021 and has now grown to more than 210 workers who are “building at the same level as other employees, but they’re only fluent in Spanish,” Downing said.
White’s Shape Corp. is mirroring some of Gentex’s efforts, including participating in the Ottawa County child care program, though not at necessarily the same level. As well, Shape is in the early stages of exploring transportation options that could bring workers to the company’s Grand Haven headquarters and main production facility. Shape also is in the planning stages of redeveloping its Grand Haven campus to “have the best work environment” where office workers want to go.
“As businesses, what we’re trying to do — I think it has to be a more holistic approach,” White said during a fireside chat. “It’s not just about: What do you make in an hour? We have to take a more holistic approach to our team members and team member development, and we have several strategies to do that.”
White noted his involvement with Talent First, a coalition of hundreds of CEOs from a 13-county region that aims to grow West Michigan into a top 20 region in the country for talent attraction development.
“We talk about issues going on in the industry: Talent is one of them. The philosophy we have, and it started with our founders, is that as business leaders, we have to be involved. We have to promote and drive change,” White said. “We can’t sit back and say, ‘We can’t find people, we might have to pay more.’ Yes, it’s difficult to find people, but we have to own that and develop our own talent. Not just within our own walls — as business leaders, we have to get out in the community and support talent pipeline development. That doesn’t happen on its own. We can’t just rely on schools and the government to do that.”
Whitmer joined the symposium to highlight her administration’s efforts to grow Michigan’s auto sector, including through massive incentive programs to lure companies and prepare sites as well as through talent development initiatives. That includes additional investments in the state’s Going Pro upskilling program, and temporarily lowering the age to participate in the Reconnect program to 21, which Whitmer said would open tuition-free higher education opportunities to an additional 350,000 Michigan residents. She also noted her recent budget proposal to extend the state’s Achievement Scholarship program that reduces tuition at the state’s major universities.
“That’s what momentum looks like, and that’s why our focus has been on closing the skills gap, creating opportunity,” Whitmer said, noting that Going Pro has so far helped 6,000 businesses and 470,000 employees upskill within the workplace. “This really has been a game changer for so many incumbent businesses, especially in the auto industry. These talent development proposals will certainly make a difference in business.”