Clark County manufacturers: retaining workers, finding skilled labor remains a challenge

Chris Martin changes the chuck in a a precision drilling machine Tuesday at Pentaflex. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Chris Martin changes the chuck in a a precision drilling machine Tuesday at Pentaflex. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Clark County manufacturers have had varying degrees of success when looking to fill open entry level positions during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, attracting skilled labor still remains a challenge.

The county, mirroring national trends, is still dealing with preexisting issues in terms of recruiting and retaining that type of labor as an older generation of workers begins to retire.

Those employees often take with them skills that younger people entering the workforce may not have. That in turn is creating a labor gap that some employers say is becoming increasingly difficult to fill.

Those issues remained unchanged throughout the coronavirus pandemic. However, it has created short term obstacles for some employers looking to fill entry level positions.

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Some employers noted seeing fewer applicants apply and those that work with temp agencies noted that there were fewer people available to recruit.

Some of the employers that talked to the News-Sun said this was the case especially in the early summer months as they began ramping up their operations.

One of them included the manufacturer Pentaflex in Springfield, which had trouble attracting new labor in July, when it was looking to add to its workforce. The company makes safety parts for the heavy truck industry.

Ohio saw a dramatic increase in its unemployment rate between March and April. There was also a record breaking number of people who filed for unemployment benefits at that time.

The jump in those numbers were due to the nature of the pandemic and the statewide safety measures that were enacted as a result. That period saw a number of people being temporarily laid off from their jobs.

A statewide stay-at-home order was enacted in March that called for businesses to temporarily shutter their doors if they were not deemed essential.

Most area manufacturers fell into the essential category. However, some had to reduce production or temporarily cease production all together due to issues in the supply chain.

However, the state began reopening portions of its economy in May. Some manufactures previously impacted by supply chain issues are now back to normal production schedules.

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Amy Donahoe, director of workforce development for the Chamber of Greater Springfield, said that the pandemic has also made some employees wary of returning to the workplace. They or their family members may be at a higher risk in terms of the coronavirus.

“There is lot of fear and anxiety stemming from the unknowns associated with the pandemic,” she said.

Donahoe said that can also contribute to the smaller number of applicants available or make it harder for employers to find needed candidates.

Horton Hobbs, the vice president of economic development for the chamber, said that some employers that had to temporarily lay off staff may have more of a challenge getting them back.

He said that some of those employees may have found other work opportunities.

Dave Arndt, the president of Pentaflex, said following July, finding talent for entry level positions has become easier. He noted that his company has gradually seen more applicants. However, there is still a problem in retaining workers.

“The pool of applicants for unskilled positions has not shrunk. For the most part we usually find them. However, it is very hit or miss on whether they want to go into a career in manufacturing,” he said of the current situation.

Arndt noted that his company continues to see a high turnover rate for entry level positions. That has led Pentaflex to direct its efforts in reaching out to talent ahead of time to see if they are interested in a career in manufacturing.

Arndt said his company has traditionally relied on temp agencies to find employees and those candidates usually have to work with the company for 90 days before they can become full time.

“You spend the amount it will take to train them and then they leave. You are not getting that value in training. That is something that a lot of a manufacturers have to deal with,”Arndt said.

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There are also efforts in having more suppliers come in and provide training as well as pairing new hires with experienced workers in a sort of mentorship program.

In terms of actual recruiting efforts, the pandemic has changed the methods that companies are using in terms of searching for and recruiting talent.

“Human resource departments are navigating blindly. They may not know what will happen next and this is not in their handbooks,” Donahoe said.

A lot of employers have switched to more virtual approaches in terms of recruitment and hiring. That includes holding webinars in which potential employees can ask questions or get connected with hiring managers.

Donahoe said that has led the chamber to look at different ways to help those employers find candidates. In-person job fairs have transformed to virtual ones. It has also led to local companies investing more in targeted social media post as well as in efforts to enhance their websites.

Donahoe said that amid the pandemic, the chamber has partnered with several manufacturers in holding virtual events or webinars.

One of those companies includes Topre America, which was looking to recruit talent though a number of different marketing efforts.

The auto parts maker has hired 110 people in the past two months at its Springfield facility.

It’s president Brad Pepper said that recent hiring effort are part of a scheduled growth for the company. He said the company has been gradually growing its Springfield workforce over the past few years. They now have 346 employees in the area.

Pepper said that the pandemic has created a unique situation for employers as they have to factor in its impact on the available workforce. He said as a result it has made it much more difficult to find candidates.

He said in the beginning stages of the pandemic, some manufacturers had to reduce their inventory. Now there is an effort to build that back up, creating a demand for more workers as a result.

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Pepper said they also have to work through changes caused by the pandemic. That includes an increase in personal protection equipment for employees as well as implementing or maintaining social distancing measures.

However, it is still more difficult to fill skilled positions. Pepper said that positions in maintenance or those calling for tool and dye makers are hard to fill. He said that 10% of those positions at Topre’s Springfield facility are still open.

Arndt said traditionally it usually takes a week to fill an entry level position at Pentaflex. But for skilled labor, it can take up to four months if not longer.

“The people who are good in those areas don’t usually leave,” he said, noting that those candidates are hard to find as a result.

There has been efforts in recent years geared towards creating a pipeline between high schools and trade schools to fill those open manufacturing jobs. That includes reaching students not only in the high school level but in middle school as well.

In Clark County, some employers have invested time and resources in training and promoting from within. They have also worked with the Clark State Community College in terms of certain certification programs.

Hobbs said that in terms of attracting labor, companies have also focused on surrounding areas.

Hobbs said that 22,970 people commute into the county for work and about 31,897 Clark County residents have jobs elsewhere. He said that is based on the most recent data available to them, which was collected in 2017.

Facts & Figures

22,970: number of people living outside of Clark County who commute into the county for work

31,897: number of Clark County residents who work outside of the county

44.2: percentage of Clark County residents that are employed and work in the county

110: number of people in Springfield hired by Topre America in the past two months

10: percentage of skilled labor positions currently open at Topre’s Springfield facility