By Dusty Weis, Association of Equipment Manufacturers

Tucked about midway from Ottumwa to Des Moines, you won’t catch more than a glimpse of Pella, Iowa if you breeze through on the 163 bypass. But nonetheless, this little city of 10,000 is home to the Vermeer Corporation, a global leader in equipment manufacturing that competes with companies headquartered in cities like Chicago, New York and Beijing.

Making its roots in the farm fields where the company’s original prototype designs sprang to life presents Vermeer with unique workforce challenges, according to talent acquisition manager Whitney Wilkinson, in addition to the normal industry pressures on recruitment and retention.

“It is difficult,” Wilkinson said. “Manufacturing takes good, quality, highly-skilled people to be successful, and we struggle with that, just like everybody else does.”

But Vermeer has turned its small-town circumstances into a human resources asset, Wilkinson said, by leveraging a comprehensive workforce development initiative that’s nearly cradle-to-grave in its scope. The company’s investment in preparing people for a career in manufacturing goes far beyond the high school and college levels, starting well before elementary school and continuing past retirement, in some cases.

Starting them young—STEM-focused daycare

Just recently, Vermeer launched a partnership to open a childcare and early learning facility across the street from its manufacturing campus in Pella. The Yellow Iron Academy focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in its daily curriculum to get young children ready to succeed as students and better prepare them for career opportunities of the future.

While the company won’t have the opportunity to hire any of these STEM-savvy youngsters for years, Wilkinson said the daycare fulfills a more immediate need as well—providing busy parents who work odd hours with a childcare solution custom-tailored to their needs. While the daycare is open to the general public, Vermeer team members receive discounted services, and the facility caters to workers on a variety of different schedules.

Wilkinson said that, while the idea for the partnership was a direct response to the needs of Vermeer’s employees, the company’s leadership was instantly supportive—“our shareholders were 100 percent invested in it.”

Reshaping students’ attitudes about manufacturing

Vermeer invests in local young people through a variety of other partnerships and programs, Wilkinson said, not just to provide them with needed skills, but also to shift their attitudes toward careers in manufacturing. “There’s just this thought that manufacturing is this really gross environment for people who aren’t really skilled, and that just couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.

And if today’s students won’t even consider a career in manufacturing, then tomorrow’s workforce will be harder to recruit than ever before. Thankfully, Wilkinson said Vermeer has found that even a one-time effort to correct those misperceptions can have a striking impact on students’ outlooks.

Every year, Vermeer hosts a “Manufacturing Day” event at its plant in Pella, part of a nationwide effort in October to dispel myths about manufacturing. At Vermeer, more than 650 students from 10 area high schools engage with employees at information booths, participate in simulations and learn about the skills needed to be successful in manufacturing.

Prior to the event, only 39 percent of those students say they would consider a career in manufacturing. But once they’ve toured the facility and met with employees, Wilkinson says their surveys find that 61 percent of those same young people would now consider a job there.

Stopping the “brain drain” of institutional knowledge

At the other end of the spectrum, the company also offers retirees the opportunity to return to the workforce, if they desire, on a limited part-time basis. Through the “Friends of Vermeer” program, senior team members can make a little extra income while ensuring that their valuable institutional knowledge is not lost.

“Not only is it great because we get a team member that can hit the ground running with their knowledge and expertise, but they also can provide a mentor program to some of our younger team members as well,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said that many “Friends of Vermeer” participants find that it’s not only a great way to stay active and avoid the retirement blues, but that they thoroughly enjoy interacting with the next generation of the workforce. And while their primary role is as teachers, mentors and advisors, sometimes they can even learn a few things from the new employees’ fresh perspectives.

Without a doubt, it takes a great deal of time and energy to orchestrate Vermeer’s comprehensive workforce development programs. So why does the company invest the effort and expense in strategies that don’t guarantee immediate, measurable results?

“It’s because we know this workforce challenge is going to continue for years to come, and it’s only going to get more difficult unless we start building these pipelines early,” Wilkinson said.  

Whitney Wilkinson was one of several speakers at AEM’s Thinking Forward conference in Wichita, KS at Textron Aviation.