By Emery Styron

How hard is it for growing businesses to find skilled workers in Eastern Iowa? Here’s one indicator: a pair of Corridor manufacturers this summer tried to rent the same U.S. Highway 218 billboard near Riverside to recruit employees.

Bazooka Farmstar and Modine Manufacturing Co., located side-by-side in Washington’s industrial park, are both enjoying increased demand due partly to the nation’s natural gas boom. Both are also bumping up against the Corridor’s 3.6 percent unemployment rate and a statewide shortage of skilled workers.

And both are prospecting for employees in non-traditional ways while upgrading benefits and company culture to attract and retain workers.

“We were looking for different ways to get people in the door this summer,” said

Eric Hahn, Bazooka general manager. “We asked a sales rep about a particular billboard location on 218. They said ‘It’s already been taken.” The taker was next-door-neighbor Modine.

Modine is “competing with people all over the area for production jobs, right now, specifically welders,” said Kevin Conlin, plant manager. “We’ve tried some things we haven’t tried in the past. Billboards is one.”

Mr. Conlin said applications quadrupled after Modine rented two billboards on U.S. 218 in early August. The copy was simple: “Now hiring, $15.38/hour, Washington, Apply in person.”

Bazooka hasn’t seen dramatic results but Mr. Hahn is still sold on the billboards.

“It’s hard to quantify any advertising. We just try to get the information out there,” he said. He also recruits via newspaper ads, CareerBuilder, Craigslist and Iowa Workforce Development websites.

Bazooka employs 80 people – half of them welders – to build grain handling and manure handling systems. The manure injection equipment market has grown 30 to 40 percent year over year. That, along with sharper marketing and branding has fueled Bazooka’s growth, but a bonus came from the oil and gas industry.

Water transfer equipment – huge hose reels and pump trailers – can be modified for use in hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks to extract oil or gas.

“It’s been a big growth factor,” Mr. Hahn said.

He needs skilled welders and final assemblers with a variety of mechanical skills who can read blueprints and put together large pieces of equipment without a lot of fixturing.

“There are a lot of structural welds. We can’t have failures in the field. We need to hire people who lay a solid weld.” Mr. Hahn said.

Heavy competition

Bazooka doesn’t require a two-year welding certificate, but looks for either a person with welding experience or schooling.

“We want skilled workers coming in,” Mr. Hahn said, noting that the tight labor market has made that a challenge.

“Unemployment has been so low that skilled workers already have jobs. To attract, we have to have better pay or benefits or some other advantage,” he said

To compete, Bazooka has raised wages and offers a $1,000 sign-on bonus. Welders earn $13 to $20 per hour, based on weld, math and skill level tests. The company provides weekly free lunches, breakfast for Saturday workers and, for non-probationary workers, free uniforms and laundry service.

Modine starts welders at $16.03 per hour and electricians at $22.23 per hour. Mr. Conlin agrees with that pay alone isn’t enough.

“It’s more than just offering money. It has to be a good place to work, a safe place, one that values quality and the employee,” he said. He points with pride to his plant’s record of 254 days without a recordable injury and stresses the 100-year-old company’s stability.

Modine builds engine parts related to heat transfer and cooling and ships worldwide. “Wherever there’s an engine, we have a market” Mr. Conlin said.

The fracking boom has increased demand for large engines, resulting in more orders, he said.

Modine will train on the job, but prefers welders with two-year certificates. “They’ve had all the basics, know some of the science behind what they’re doing and why they are doing it … It’s all about getting our people up to speed as fast as we can,” Mr. Conlin said.

Mr. Conlin has booked five more billboard locations, but he’s not stopping there. Outreach includes newspaper, Facebook and radio advertising. A TV ad schedule is coming, too. Modine is also reaching out to John Deere employees affected by layoffs at the company’s plant in Waterloo.

Changing the perception

Fifty-six percent of the jobs in Iowa require more than a high school degree but less than four years of college, yet only 33 percent of workers have those middle-skills, according to an Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) study released in July 2013.

“Qualified and certified welders have been an in-demand area for some time. There is a lot of competition between companies when looking into this particular occupational pool,” said Kerry Koonce, IWD communications director. “We really encourage employers to work directly with area training providers to target talent that is just entering the marketplace.”

Mr. Conlin, Mr. Hahn and Washington Economic Development Group Executive Director Ed Raber are already on the case.

“I am beating the drum to turn kids back on to jobs like welding, which offer intellectual challenge, mobility and room to grow,” Mr. Raber said.

He sees improved cooperation between education and business. “Schools are now saying ‘Come on in,’” he noted. “Now, the connection is there.”

Kirkwood Community College’s new Washington Regional Center is built around that business-education connection. The nearly 40,000-square-foot facility tailors training to the needs of local employers. Bazooka bought naming rights and Modine helped equip the welding lab in the new building. Engineered Building Design, also of Washington, bought naming rights on another classroom.

Kirkwood is helping set up an Advanced Manufacturing Sector Board, which will give industries a forum to share best practices and talk about ways to improve the image of advanced manufacturing among younger students. Mr. Hahn and Mr. Conlin are both part of that effort.

Eric Hanson, communications director for Iowa City Area Development Group, has consulted with Modine and Bazooka as they’ve tried to attract the skilled workers they need.

“We’ve talked with them about best practices, workplace cultures, retention and attraction,” he said.

Companies that focus on workplace culture and engagement have less problems on the attendance and attraction side, Mr. Hanson noted. “It’s about engaging employees, having a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment.”