Manufacturing comes back big in Detroit Lakes area after recession
Forget the recessionary doom and gloom of the past few years --one segment of the economy is doing surprisingly well locally and statewide --manufacturing.
Open the newspaper, surf the Internet or just ask around, and you'll find there are plenty of jobs available at manufacturing companies throughout the area.
Long seen as in decline in the United States, and battered by layoffs when the recession hit hard in 2008-2009, it's a pleasant surprise to see the manufacturing segment now leading the way in job creation in Minnesota.
Over the past year, the state has added 7,800 manufacturing jobs -- the most of any category.
And the Detroit Lakes area has not been left behind.
Looking for workers
"These (local) companies are paying a very competitive wage with good benefits for the area," said GL Tucker, director of manufacturing and technical products for M State's custom training services.
Tucker provides custom training services to local manufacturing companies like BTD, TEAM Industries and Lakeshirts.
In general, manufacturing companies in the area are "looking for people, and they are very, very busy," he said.
At BTD, for example, "we're well over 700 employees in all of our facilities, and we're still looking at hiring," in a number of departments, said Vicki Lahlum, director of human resources.
BTD has hired almost 300 employees in the past year at its four plants in Detroit Lakes, Lakeville, Otsego and Washington, Ill.
Lakeshirts is also growing -- it added 30 people over the past year, 14 of them since January.
While workers have been added in all departments, most of those hires have been in production, which "expands and contracts more than other positions," said Jeff Staley, Lakeshirts human resources manager.
By all accounts, TEAM Industries -- which operates six manufacturing plants in the area -- is also hiring workers at a brisk pace.
The company declined to be interviewed for this story, but TEAM has held a job fair for potential employees, as has The Work Connection in Perham, a temporary worker supplier.
SJE-Rhombus and other local manufacturers have also been hiring.
"People are always saying manufacturing is dying --it's a dying industry," said Monte Hanson, spokesman for Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Actually it's doing quite well -- it's kind of the opposite of what people think."
Take BTD, for example.
The company says reduced sales and low metal prices knocked a big hole in its revenues -- which shrank by nearly 40 percent in 2009 and early 2010.
But the company (owned by Otter Tail Corp. of Fergus Falls) revamped its system to the just-in-time ordering that inventory-shy companies want these days. Now sales have fully recovered and the company sees blue skies ahead.
Through luck or skill, BTD has chosen the right companies to supply, and many of them are gaining market share in industries that include agriculture, recreation, lawn and garden, construction equipment and energy.
Apparently TEAM Industries, with a combined 850,000 square feet of manufacturing space, has made similarly wise decisions.
It has supplied parts and services to manufacturers that include John Deere, Ford, Dana, Eaton, CNH, Polaris, Ingersoll-Rand, Textron, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha.
Lakeshirts has found success by diversifying from lake resort and summer-themed products to collegiate and NCAA licensed work.
The sports-related products are popular during non-summer months, helping balance the company's overall workload throughout the year.
"It helps from the standpoint of staffing," Staley said.
Skilled worker shortage
With manufacturing booming, the biggest problem some of these companies have now is finding machinists, tool-and die makers, designers, welders and other skilled employees.
Manufacturing is now a high-tech, advanced industry and it pays well for talented workers.
BTD, for example, offers good pay along with health, dental, vision and life insurance, a 401k retirement plan, a stock purchase program, paid vacation and 100 percent tuition reimbursement.
It's holding a tour and open house for high school students and their parents at 7 p.m. May 5.
M State can help
"We definitely train employees, said BTD's Lahlum, "but sometimes you need to find individuals that are already up and running with the skills set. So we find that hard with robotic welders, operating and programming machines and with our tool-and-die (machines)."
Once highly in demand, technical college classes in those areas have been dwindling.
"Ten years ago, there was a waiting list to get into tool-and-die or machining classes in Staples," she said. "Now, it's hard to fill."
Lakeshirts is also willing to train.
"If someone has the desire to do production, we have the ability to train them," Staley said.
Lakeshirts will add about a dozen more employees for the summer months, but, Staley said, "I don't expect a big demand, but we always have production positions."
When companies have specialized training needs, GL Tucker's program at M State can help. It develops the curriculum, finds qualified instructors and matches them with manufacturers. Training can be done at M State or on-site.
"We've had a really good relationship with MSCTC throughout a few years," said BTD's Lahlum. "We had our welding school and rented a room and had our BTD tool-and-die school there. Also, we just finished up a supervisory associate degree program," which trained 26 employees over two years.
M State is now training BTD employees in programming and machining skills, she added.
So why is manufacturing booming in the area?
"These are good companies with a good niche, good productivity and good qualities," Tucker said.
They survived the downturn, adjusted their strategies and are coming back strong.