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The Facebook page of WCCO Belting in Wahpeton, N.D., has a number of photos like this one. "Dakota is the Sioux word for 'friend,' and that is part of the reason we call North Dakota home," the photo's caption reads. "The name fits our culture at WCCO perfectly. We are not just colleagues; we are friends and family."

Manufacturers attract workers by walking the ‘servant leadership’ walk

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Rick Trontvet knows the numbers: Half a million open jobs in manufacturing right now, and over the next decade in America, some 2.4 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled.

In fact, as senior vice president of human resources for the Minnesota-based Marvin Companies – most of whose factories are in thinly populated rural areas – Trontvet knows the trends better than most.

But Trontvet also thinks Marvin and a few of the other employers whom he’s worked for have the answer. 

“I’m always excited to talk about this, because it’s cracking the code,” Trontvet said.

“Everyone thinks it’s impossible to hire large numbers of workers in rural areas. But after 25 years of doing this, I feel like it’s actually achievable – if you’re a really good employer.”

If employers simply “do the right thing day in and day out,” Trontvet said, “the street hears about that. And that’s how people hear that the jobs are good and the employees are treated well: from our own employees, who are the best recruiters of all.”

Understand, Trontvet isn’t talking about just pay and benefits. He’s talking about – well, here’s another speaker who understands the Marvin Companies’ appeal:

"The family business in Warroad, Minn. … didn't lay off a single one of their 4,000 employees during the recession, even when their competitors shut down dozens of plants, even when it meant the owners gave up some perks and pay – because they understood their biggest asset was the community and the workers who helped build that business.”

That was President Obama in 2012, in his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for re-election. 

And that’s the kind of commitment-to-workers that Trontvet is talking about. 

“The more we do the right thing, the more we treat people fairly, the more people are attracted to come work for us,” Trontvet said.

‘Family first’

Rod Koch couldn’t agree more. Koch is vice president of operations at WCCO Belting, a Wahpeton, N.D., company whose 190 employees make industrial rubber belts.

The process involves heat, hydraulics and heavy machinery, so it’s not glamorous work. “But over the past four or five years, our turnover rate has been under 3 percent,” Koch said. “I’m quite confident that the industry average turnover in the United States is in the 18 to 20 percent range.”

Moreover, “we have just about a 50/50 male-to-female ratio,” he said. “Again, that’s a totally nontypical statistic in manufacturing, where the female workforce in factories tends to be about 25 percent.”  

What’s WCCO Belting’s secret?

It’s very simple, Koch said. The company treats employees like “work family.”

It starts before an applicant has been offered a job.

WCCO Belting skips traditional conference-room “interrogations” and instead invites candidates on a full factory tour. “Because when you go on a walking tour, it becomes less of an interview,”  Koch said.

“We want it to be a dialogue – a conversation. And we want the person to be able to ask us as many questions as we ask them, because they need to be comfortable with us just like we want to be comfortable with them.”

Here’s something else that applicants notice: “We greet everybody by name,” Koch said.

“It’s a lost art in many corporations. But I heard a long time ago that the sweetest word in any language is your name. And think about it: Don’t you know the name of everybody in your house – in your family? So why not in your work family, too?”

So when co-workers walk around, “we’re greeting everybody by name,” Koch said.

Families are flexible, so WCCO Belting strives to be as well. “We work around daycare; daycare is a huge issue,” Koch said. 

“If they need to come in an hour later and will stay an hour later, no problem. We’ll make it work, because that’s what you do when you have a truly great person: you figure things out.”

So, time off on occasion to attend a child’s baseball game?

“Absolutely. Family first,” Koch replied.

During the interview, Koch thought for a moment about how else the company’s approach shows up. “I can give you three examples that happened in the past 24 hours,” he said.

First, when Koch returned from a business trip, “my supervisors gave me, like, a friend hug,” he said.

“They said, ‘Hey, I missed you. I’m glad your back.’ I said, ‘I missed you, too.’ So that’s pretty cool, and I think it’s a great indicator.”

Second, “this morning I got a wedding invitation – one of the factory workers, inviting me to her wedding. That kind of thing happens often, too. We visit people in the hospital because they’re part of our family.”

Third, “I was talking with one gentleman; his father’s quite ill. And he said, ‘Would you pray for me?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Because don’t you do that with your own family?”

Managers in many fields talk about “servant leadership” and wonder how to exemplify it. “Well, here’s a way,” Koch said.

“It’s a very good theme that helps you make judgments as different situations arise. Just ask, ‘How would I treat this with my family?’ It’s so simple.”

The rise of RISE

As Trontvet noted, current employees can be the best ambassadors of a company that tries to do things right. And as Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, S.D., has learned, that approach can spark interest among teens as well. 

“We start at the eighth-grade level by attending area job fairs,” said Peggy Canter, talent acquisition manager.

“The local schools hold career days, and we’re very much involved in those events – talking with students, telling them about opportunities, showing them our facility.” 

Among other products, Raven makes precision agriculture equipment – high-tech spraying systems, for example, whose computerized nozzles can spray less when they’re on the inside of a turn and more when they’re on the outside.

All of which delights the students, who usually are surprised that manufacturing involves such high-tech work.

“Likewise, we care a lot about STEM education, and we have a partnership with Girl Scouts-Dakota Horizons to give Girl Scouts hands-on STEM experience,” Canter said.

For example, the Girl Scouts spend a day at Raven, soldering their own sensor, trying out technologies and learning about STEM opportunities.

For high-school students, Raven offers RISE, or Raven Invites Students to Excel.

“It’s a part-time employment opportunity for high-school student where they’ll go to school in the morning, then come here for the afternoon,” Canter said.

Raven workers act as mentors to the students throughout the program, and the students also attend classes on topics such as Interviewing Tips & Tricks, Personality Assessment and other life skills.

“It’s a chance for us to help these young people as well as expose them to manufacturing,” Canter said. 

“And we’re hoping they’ll tell their classmates, friends and even their parents about their experience. So it’s another good opportunity to find those team members who might join us.” 

Then there’s Raven University, one of Raven’s efforts to help employees advance in their careers. Raven U offers classes and programs for employees in leadership development, functional skills, volunteerism, personal development and other topics. 

“In 2016, over 14,000 learning sessions were experienced in classrooms, workshops, conferences, and online by our team members,” Raven’s website states.

Culture and values

Last fall, Rod Koch of WCCO Belting spoke at a statewide human-resources conference in Bismarck, N.D. His message: Pay and benefits matter – but when workers are surveyed, they say culture and values matter more.

“So do career opportunities and opportunities for growth. Pay and benefits is about sixth on the list,” he said.

Leading by example; showing loyalty before expecting it in return; earning respect rather than just demanding it – those are the real solutions to the workforce shortage, Koch said. “And from our experience, they work amazingly well.”