Traverse city

— Many employers seem to be looking for skilledmanufacturing workers with experience.

The problem: A lot of those workers aren’t seeking employment.

Emily Challender, purchasing manager at Hayes Manufacturing in Fife Lake, said it’s been the “same problem for the last 20 years” when it comes to finding enough employees, not to mention those with enough experience. “We’re having trouble finding people who have (computer numerical control) CNC experience or skilled manufacturing experience,” Challender said. “Those that have experience already have a job in Traverse City.”  Ken Hall, general manager at National Vacuum Equipment in Traverse City, is seeing a similar situation at the other end of Grand Traverse County.  “I’ve given up trying to find qualified machinists,” Hall said.  According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages from the Michigan Department of Technology Management and Budget, Grand Traverse County had 223 manufacturing establishments in the second quarter of 2017. That ranks 14th among Michigan’s 83 counties. Topping the list are population heavy counties like Oakland 

Record-Eagle file photo/ Jan-Michael Stump

Brad Houdek lowers a piece into a lathe at Jade Tool, Inc.

(2,035), Wayne (1,637), Macomb (1,630) and Kent (1,140) counties.

“The industry is definitely shifting,” said Matt Schwarze, secretary of the Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council and business development specialist at Northwestern Michigan College Training Services. “We do have more employers coming to the region.”  But when it comes to the average number of employees in manufacturing, Grand Traverse is only 23rd with 5,533 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.  Looking outside of Grand Traverse County, Kalkaska County has 13 manufacturing establishments, Benzie County 19. That ranks among the 15th lowest among Michigan counties that have manufacturing locations. Leelanau (38) and Antrim (39) have slightly more opportunities.  Kalkaska County has 356 manufacturing workers and Benzie 370, ranking as the 12th and 13th worst in Michigan. Leelanau is 18th (493) and Antrim 27th (895).  With the demand for a limited number of people, human resources personnel often need to look at other companies, without trying to poach.  When Cherry Growers declared bankruptcy in September and eventually decided to close its plant in late January, some 80 employees were out of a job. National Vacuum’s Hall tried to contact Cherry Growers to let them know he had openings.  “I spend most of my day interviewing people,” Hall said, who joked that his general manager title should have human resources in it. “I’m taking a pretty personal look at it.”

Adam Godinez packs thousands of feet of plastic chain at Mr. Chain in Copemish.

Record-Eagle file photo/Tessa Lighty

MR Products, in the Manistee County village of Copemish, was able to find some skilled employees when the Magna plant in Benzonia closed in 2016. Human resources manager Carol Mathias, who held the same position at Magna, moved to MR Products and later hired 11 of her former co-workers at MR Products, best recognized by its subsidiary Mr.

Chain, the only United States manufacturer of plastic chain.  “I knew who came to work and who worked hard,” Mathias said.  “It was beneficial to MR Products and it was beneficial to Magna.”  Mathias did say that MR Products doesn’t seem to lack for entry level employees, even though the company typically doesn’t advertise for openings and there is no online application process.  “I have a file of applications an inch thick,” she said. “I have people applying almost daily.”

Above, Nic Konieczka deburrs a chuck — a special type of clamp — at Jade Tool, Inc. in Traverse City.

Record-Eagle file photo/Jan-Michael Stump

Below, pump assembler Mike Johnston works next to a roller conveyor at National VacuumEquipment.

Record-Eagle file photo/Dan Nielsen


But Mathias said skilled workers with some experience are harder to find.  Some manufacturing employers wind up hiring entry-level workers and training them for the skilled positions.

“It’s kind of hard to get people in the door to learn,” Challender said. “We’re very willing to train.”  “We train almost everybody,” said Hall.  Schwarze said several factors have led to a shortage of workers in northern Michigan. Two of them: pay and affordable housing options.  Grand Traverse County has more manufacturing companies (223) than counties with similar populations: Midland (74), Lapeer (124), Lenawee (127) and Bay (129) counties.  But the average weekly manufacturing wage in Grand Traverse is $965 a week, just ahead of just Lapeer ($875). Bay ($1,139) and Lenawee counties ($1,243) are slightly higher, while Midland’s average of $1,555 a week is significantly more.  The four counties geographically surrounding Grand Traverse range from Leelanau’s $496 to Benzie’s $804, albeit from smaller sample sizes.  National Vacuum Equipment has a “bounty” program, offering employees a bonus if they bring in someone to work at the company. The company starts employees at $13 an hour with full benefits.  “That’s people that don’t know a lug wrench from a screwdriver,” Hall said. “No one stays at the rate for long.”  Entry-level positions begin at $10 an hour at MR Products; then received 25-cent hourly increases every 90 days for the first year.  Challender didn’t offer specifics at Hayes Manufacturing, but did say the company is “competitive and we’re getting more competitive all the time.”

Dennis Stacey, vice president of Mr. Chain, demonstrates a plastic carabiner clip he designed for the company. Stacey is the lead designer for new products in the company.

Record-Eagle file photo/Tessa Lighty