By Dave DeWitte
Whirlpool Corp. has launched initiatives to become an employer of choice at its Middle Amana refrigerator plant, where the company will unveil innovative product advances and invest $6 million in 2015.
The plant is the flagship facility for French door refrigerator production by the world’s largest appliance manufacturer. In a time when more and more refrigerators are being imported and U.S. plants have been closing, Middle Amana has been a bastion of American-made quality.
Plant officials announced that 1 million French door refrigerators were produced at the Whirlpool Middle Amana plant in 2014 for the first time in plant history.
“We’re building around 5,000 a day, and our goal is to keep this going out here in Iowa,” said Tom Nelson, who became director of human resources at the Amana operation six months ago. “We believe in American made.”
Mr. Nelson said one of the reasons he took the position is that Whirlpool’s Middle Amana operation is investing heavily in innovation and plant efficiency.
“We’ve got some very innovative, cool stuff coming out in the new year,” Mr. Nelson said. “I just wish I could tell you what it is now.”
Capital investments of more than $6 million are planned in 2015, Mr. Nelson said, mainly in things like conveyor belts and other process equipment.
To keep the plant successful, Mr. Nelson said Whirlpool realizes it has to become more effective at attracting and retaining top talent.
Whirlpool has launched an initiative at Middle Amana called Continuous Improving Organization, or CIO, within the last six months. Driven by a “leadership pillar” of 22 hourly and salaried employees, Mr. Nelson said the program’s goal is to establish Whirlpool as an employer of choice in the Corridor by building accountability and trust among its 2,600 workers.
The program connects on multiple levels with the TEAM workplace culture initiative recently launched by the Iowa City Area Development Group. Participating companies such as Whirlpool declare their intent to become “TEAM Centered Workplaces,” working toward more internal collaboration and employee autonomy. The acronym stands for Trust, Enjoyment Accountability and Managing the Whole Person.
Whirlpool is utilizing the Corridor’s economic development support groups to help recruit employees, and even has launched an English as a Second Language program to become an employer of choice for immigrants and others who do not speak English as their primary language.
Because Middle Amana has a relatively small resident population, over half of the plant’s workforce comes from Cedar Rapids, Mr. Nelson said. Whirlpool has been in discussions with the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization and other area transportation planners about creating a transit service that employees lacking a vehicle, insurance or a driver’s license could use for commuting to the plant.
A Corridor public transit study by IDOT is first assessing the need for public transit options.
“I commend the (Iowa) Department of Transportation for driving this initiative,” Mr. Nelson said. “I hope they see this through, because that will provide a lot of assistance to people who want to take jobs here in Amana.”
Mr. Nelson believes the Corridor is a great area to find the kind of talent needed for a world-class refrigerator production facility, with a well-educated workforce and “fantastic universities” producing engineering talent.
Manufacturing has its own stigma as an occupational field because of the long era of downsizing it has gone through in the United States, Mr. Nelson acknowledged, but he believes Whirlpool can play a major part in overturning it with initiatives like CIO.
“We’re looking forward to bringing back the excitement of manufacturing with the products we bring to the world,” Mr. Nelson said.