If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop, it was the labor shortage for the manufacturing sector.
In fact, many area manufacturing leaders have told the Business Journal in the past eight months that the need for personnel is greater than ever, thanks to several factors: furloughed or laid off workers not wanting to come back after temporary government unemployment benefits paid more than what they made on the job; new hurdles such as a lack of child care or fears over contracting the virus; and the rise of remote work options versus in person.
Jim Cox, owner of Grand Rapids-based PriorityHR, said his staffing and recruiting firm has been on its toes since April, leveraging its longstanding expertise in sourcing and delivering manufacturing talent to local clients. The firm also provides human resources management and compliance, employee benefit administration, payroll, workers’ compensation and other employee-related services.
Cox has a team of anywhere from four to 15 people working part time and full time in-house at PriorityHR to help with staffing hiring events and running the firm.
He said PriorityHR has learned a lot of lessons in the past few months, including the need for greater flexibility by hosting job fairs on weekends when candidates are more available; maximizing its use of Indeed.com job boards to advertise position openings; tapping college students whose classes were canceled or are now doing online coursework and may have more time on their hands to work; and being willing to help clients set up new technology processes such as contactless digital time clocks, COVID-19 testing, geo-tracing and more, all of which Cox considers part of Industry 4.0 and the cost of doing business in a pandemic.
Working with well-known West Michigan companies such as Challenge Manufacturing, HexArmor, Extruded Aluminum and Aluminum Fabrication Corp., PriorityHR matched about 717 workers with manufacturing jobs between April 1 and Nov. 12, with about 300 of those being 18- to 25-year-olds and/or college students, in April alone. This compares to past years in which the firm recruited about 75 to 100 students for the whole year. Cox said he was able to increase his recruiting output by leveraging Indeed.com job board algorithms across several accounts that link back to PriorityHR, as well as availing himself of fast background-check technology and on-the-spot drug testing.
Cox said the young people he recruits are ideal for simple jobs like assembly. After placing them into temporary jobs at his clients’ plants, this fall, he was able to help many of them secure scholarships through Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s new $24 million Futures for Frontliners program enacted Sept. 10 using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds. The program offers essential, frontline workers a tuition-free path to community college to obtain skills needed for high-wage, high-demand jobs.
While the program was set up for frontline workers in general, not just for manufacturing laborers, it allows any essential employee who is a Michigan resident and worked at least 11 weeks part time between April 1 and June 30 to have their tuition covered at a community college if they meet certain eligibility requirements and complete an application by Dec. 31, 2020. For the manufacturing sector, those eligible would include the young people Cox recruited for assembling personal protective equipment (PPE), as long as they don’t already have a college degree.
As of Nov. 13, Cox said PriorityHR had helped 47 of its placements obtain free tuition through Futures for Frontliners.
“If you didn’t go to college, you can get that (award), and you can go on with CNC or whatever (you choose). A lot of the kids are using it … so that’s something like a million and a half in tuition dollars. It was a nice benefit for them,” Cox said.
In addition to providing employment opportunities for individuals and filling job openings quickly for clients, Cox said PriorityHR has been busy helping manufacturers put in place systems for preventing the spread of COVID-19 on the job. At Aluminum Fabrication in Allendale, the firm set up kiosks for health screenings at every entrance so that employees could spread out to ensure better physical distancing.
He also has worked with some employer clients to restructure production from one or two large shifts to several smaller ones in order to ensure proper distancing between employees. A challenge inherent with that is that most people want to work first shift, but Cox said he solves this by using the opportunity to move to first shift as an incentive for excellent output and job performance.
On the tech front, a PriorityHR intern helped the firm adopt a QR code scanning system that lets clients’ employees clock into their shifts touch-free. The firm began using geolocation on employees’ smartphones while they’re onsite to keep track of time and attendance, as well. Cox can monitor on his phone whether workers are carpooling (which is discouraged), congregating too close together on the job, coming and going, etc. He said the employees have to consent to this before it’s turned on. Cox said he is able to use the data to screen for risky behaviors and pull people off the job when needed, a resource that he believes has been successful at stopping outbreaks.
He also has developed relationships with private COVID-19 testing firms to be able to get results back faster from tests administered on potentially exposed employees.
Cox said word has gotten out about the specialized services he is offering manufacturers, and if he lined up all the jobs he is asked to do end to end, it would be about five years’ worth of work. He said he is taking it one day at a time and using all the efficiencies he has learned to help manufacturers get through this.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s a spotlight on me because I am the (Industry 4.0) guy right now; there isn’t anybody else,” he said. “But two years from now, it will be the norm and (other staffing firms) will look just like mine. They should, if they’re going to survive.”