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Back to School: Finding Your Next Recruit in High School or College

Back to School: Finding Your Next Recruit in High School or College

How companies are digging deeper to find their next job candidates at their local high schools, colleges, and universities…and how your company can do it too.


When Wyoming Machine realized that it needed to change the outdated, unappealing public perception of manufacturing as a dark, dangerous, and dirty profession, it started partnering with other manufacturers and a local technical college. Together, they provide onsite, customized training to employees, giving them access to college credit courses through an interactive television system.

Using manufacturing tours that allow participants to experience a modern-day manufacturing environment first hand and creating opportunities for high school students to visit Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC) to learn about careers in manufacturing, the company has expanded its recruiting efforts into a largely untapped pool of young candidates. 

And when Novelis realized that more than half of its engineers were on track to retire within the next decade, the company established an Engineering Development Program (EDP) that incorporates career pathways; robust classroom curriculum with on-the-job experience; and partnerships with local educational institutions (to identify and recruit qualified candidates).

Consisting of technical, professional, and leadership training conducted at their 24 manufacturing facilities around the world, Novelis’ EDP includes classroom coursework, coaching, on-the-job projects, and other development opportunities. Over the last six years, the program has turned out 350 early-career engineer graduates.

These are two examples of how industrial companies are getting smart when it comes to recruiting young candidates who wouldn’t otherwise consider careers in manufacturing, engineering, or distribution. “These firms are running into problems finding workers for current, open positions and for future opportunities,” says Cheryl Oldham, senior vice president for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Center for Education and Workforce, which worked with both Wyoming Machine and Novelis.

“We’re at a point where companies can either continue to do what they have been doing forever and expect a different result, or think about new and different ways to expand their talent pipelines,” says Oldham, who sees more industrial companies putting a spotlight on the jobs that Generations Y and Z might not be considering in a world where much focus is placed on getting a “traditional” college education (versus getting right out into the workforce, attending a vocational-oriented school, earning a certificate/credential, or signing up for an apprenticeship).

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a shift in the narrative over to, ‘Hey, the traditional route may not necessarily be the best route for every young person,” says Oldham, who sees real opportunity for electrical distributors that put time and effort into reaching out to those students who are less interested in a traditional, 4-year degree. But like both Wyoming Machine and Novelis learned, reaching those candidates requires some legwork and a commitment to “changing the perception” about industrial and manufacturing jobs.

“It’s about creating career awareness and developing career pathways to help change the perceptions,” says Oldham, “and help young people understand that these pathways lead to great jobs, real opportunities, family-sustaining wages, and, oftentimes, no debt or low debt. They need to see that it’s a win-win.”

Workers Wanted

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.9% in July (up slightly from an 18-year low of 3.8% in May) after averaging 5.77% between 1948 and 2018. These numbers pose interesting challenges for manufacturers—a sector that has gained 1.1 million jobs since the Great Recession. According to Forbes, 17 of the 18 major industries have been in growth mode, the Institute for Supply Management reports. Manufacturers will add nearly 2% more jobs nationally in 2018, capping off 20 months of continuous growth (which isn’t expected to tail off anytime soon).

A few years ago, Kistner Concrete Products, Inc., realized that its traditional new employee recruiting approaches weren’t meeting its needs. Like many other manufacturers, this Lockport, N.Y.-based precast concrete plant pretty much settled for the prospective employees that fell into its lap, says Michael Kistner, VP and owner, without giving much regard to the potential sources that it could be tapping into.

“We decided that we wanted to be more selective about finding workers,” says Kistner, “instead of just settling for whatever came along.” And with that, the company took on a new approach to recruiting and training the “new generation” of precasters.

As part of this new commitment to making manufacturing “cool again” for new recruits, Kistner planned a conscious approach to reaching out to vocational schools, community colleges, and universities in its area. This grassroots strategy was rooted in the knowledge that such institutions were veritable breeding grounds for new employees, sales reps, managers, and even company leaders.

For example, the company invited Orleans/Niagara BOCES Building Trades students to tour its facility and get an inside look at what goes on in a precast manufacturing plant. Focused on preparing students to enter the construction field and/or continue their education at a post-secondary level, the Building Trades program helps youngsters get hands-on with tool and equipment usage; the theoretical aspects of carpentry, masonry, and plumbing; and an understanding of common structures, their parts, and relationships to one other.

Working with the school, Kistner Concrete invited students from both the Orleans and Niagara Career and Technical Education Centers to tour its facility and get an up-close look at how the business runs. Building Trades teacher Matt Anastasi says his students loved how Kistner compared the precast operations to “working in a big Play-Doh factory.”

“They really enjoyed the tour and watching the employees manufacture the products. Mr. Kistner was great with our students,” Anastasi said in Concrete Manufacturer Shares Expertise with Students. All of them thought he would make a great boss. I really can’t thank him enough for investing his time with our classes. I am sure we have students who would love to work for him.”

That last comment is music to Kistner’s ears. In fact, it’s why his company reworked its recruiting strategies in the first place. He says the BOCES effort kicked off with a letter to the school’s Work Based Learning Coordinator, Jackie Coyle, who was very receptive to the idea of getting students out into the real-world work environment. Kistner brought along a PowerPoint presentation that he typically uses when talking to engineering groups, thinking that its “cool factor” would engage students and make them want to learn more about precast concrete manufacturing.

“When I do presentations like that one, I really try to enlighten the audience because I know a lot of the people have no idea or conception of what precast even is,” says Kistner. “Most times, I get reactions like, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually pretty cool.’” He says he weaves in messaging about modular construction and talks about how it’s the future of precast and of construction as a whole.

Kistner has made similar presentations for area community colleges and universities, both of which serve as a new recruiting resource for his firm. “It’s a great way to spark interest,” says Kistner. These and other efforts to align Kistner Concrete with current students and recent grads are paying off for the company. Since implementing the new approach, the company has already hired an engineer in training (EIT) and at least four construction workers, welders, and carpenters via the school programs that it’s aligned with.

“They’re all quality employees because we vetted them,” says Kistner, “rather than taking whatever came to us through word-of-mouth referrals or employment agencies.” The EIT, for example, attended one of Kistner’s university presentations and is now working toward his PE designation. And while he admits that this approach takes decidedly more effort than simply sitting back and waiting for new recruits to “discover” manufacturing jobs on their own, Kistner says the effort is well worth it.

“I’ve done a bunch of presentations that basically take about a half-a-day at a time, but we’re very happy with the results because we’ve been able to change the culture of our organization,” he says, “to having people who want to be here, versus just having employees who are here by default.”

Making Industrial Jobs “Cool”

Ira S. Wolfe, president at Success Performance Solutions, a recruiting and employee selection firm in Lehigh Valley, Pa., has seen firsthand the struggles that today’s manufacturers and distributors are dealing with. Unfortunately, a lot of these firms are “tackling a 21st Century problem with 19th Century tools,” says Wolfe, “and it’s not working out very well for them.”

Wolfe says one of the first things distributors, manufacturers, and other industrial-type companies can do is accept the fact that yes, these can be “dirty jobs,” particularly to a millennial who may have had his or her heart set on becoming a designer, IT professional, or architect. To overcome these perception and image issues, Wolfe tells companies to focus on rebranding their industries as truly “cool” and rewarding career tracks.

And remind candidates that manufacturing isn’t just down-and-dirty plant work; it also requires good project management, sales, accounting, and even engineering professionals. “It’s not just manual labor anymore,” says Wolfe, “and people need to know that.”

Finally, Wolfe says companies should also consider their current employment and advancement pathways, knowing that the new generation of workers will want to know what lies ahead for them five, 10, or 15 years down the road. This is particularly critical for the millennial “job hopping” generation, 50% of which said they’d consider taking a job with a different company for a raise of 20% or less, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll.

For now, Kistner plans to continue with his two-pronged approach (presentations + onsite visits) to help get a higher number of next-gen employees interested in careers at Kistner Concrete. “We’re creating interest and interaction with those presentations, and then getting people in the door to experience the environment here firsthand,” he says. “The process takes some persistence and time, but it definitely works.”


Read the SIDEBAR to this article: 5 Ways to Attract Younger Workers


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Bridget McCrea  is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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