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Manufacturing employers tackle industrywide issues

USG Interiors LLC and Sappi North America, Inc. have maintained near-optimal work force levels in spite of challenges presented by a shrinking workforce.

Outside view of the Sappi plant .
Pictured is the outside of the Sappi North America, Inc. plant in Cloquet.
Contributed / Sappi North America, Inc.

CLOQUET — As the manufacturing industry's landscape changes, two of Carlton County's largest employers have taken a proactive approach to tackling some of the most pressing issues related to the industry's future.

Cloquet-based companies Sappi North America, a pulp and paper mill, and United States Gypsum (USG) Interiors LLC, a manufacturer of construction materials, have employed similar strategies in navigating the hurdles contributing to the shrinking workforce, including an aging workforce and a lack of qualified candidates due to a skills gap.

Sappi talent manager Brittany Bonk said the pulp mill is approaching near-optimal staffing levels, but she acknowledged an aging workforce at the plant has required the hiring process to be expedited in order to maintain productivity.

“We have a high population at our mill that is retirement eligible. We have a number of individuals retiring at this point, so we’ve been working very proactively to fill those positions and get people on board as quickly as possible,” Bonk said.

The labor force in Carlton County, while younger than the Northeastern Minnesota regional average, is older than the statewide average, according to data provided by Northeast Minnesota regional analyst Carson Gorecki of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Office.

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The labor force in Carlton County is expected to decline by 1.6% between 2023-2033, according to projections from Local Area Unemployment Statistics provided by DEED. The projected decline of the Northeastern Minnesota region is 4.9%, while the statewide percentage is expected to grow by 2.8%.

Bonk noted that finding qualified candidates for vacant positions has taken longer than usual.

Inside look at Sappi North America's Cloquet plant.
Pictured is the inside of the Sappi North America, Inc. plant in Cloquet.
Contributed / Sappi North America, Inc.

“Some positions are taking a little bit longer to get a qualified candidate pool, if you will, so (it’s taking) a little bit longer (than) we’re seeing maybe on certain positions,” Bonk said.

Creating a job-alert system to maintain a pipeline of qualified candidates eager to fill vacant positions has been one way in which Sappi has worked to combat this issue.

According to a Minnesota Hiring Difficulties survey conducted in 2019 by the DEED Office, published in “Hiring Difficulties in Manufacturing,” 62% of job vacancies in skilled production occupations by manufacturing firms in 2018 were reported to be difficult to fill.

Manufacturing companies under the umbrella of food, furniture, paper printing and textile were among the hardest positions to fill when compared to the seven different manufacturing categories included in the report, with 70% reporting difficulties in filling positions.

Much like Sappi, USG has been able to maintain a desired workforce at its plant thanks in part to a variety of proactive hiring strategies.

USG production engineer Joe Jameson said its near-optimal staffing level ties into the company’s goal of seeking out career-oriented candidates, who are focused on staying with the company until retirement.

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“We’re looking for people who want to make a career out of USG and not be a transient. We’re not looking for temporary people. We’re looking for people to join the family, so to speak,” Jameson said. “They want to stay in the area. They want a decent-paying job. They want good working conditions and benefits, and USG offers all of that.”

USG plant manager Jenna Leger credits the cultivation of a strong pool of candidates seeking employment with the company as one of the biggest keys to their success in navigating the dwindling workforce.

“It’s definitely a tight labor market and skilled trades like mechanics and electricians are always in demand. We maintain a pipeline of qualified candidates for several critical positions, so we’ve been able to stay almost fully staffed in recent years,” Leger said in an email to the Pine Journal. “We’re also committed to training and development for our employees, so we take time to invest in building someone’s skills. For example, we have provided on-the-job training for an operator who wanted to move into an open mechanic role.”

The positive reputation in the community, which has often led to generations of families being employed with the company, has been another factor in their success.

“Some of it’s the culture. I think we’re a great place to work. We have a lot of generational (hires), like we get referrals of people wanting their kids to work there and that gets around in the community,” Jameson said. “People wouldn’t want to work in a place where their neighbor doesn’t want their son to work or something to that effect.”

Hoping to get ahead of the issues related to a shrinking workforce, USG has made it a point of emphasis to provide resources to college students about the benefits of working in the industry in hopes they will pursue employment at companies like USG.

“USG also has partnerships with local community colleges and trade schools to help students understand the benefits of a career in manufacturing and get exposure to the field early,” Leger said.

Related Topics: SAPPIMANUFACTURING
Jake Przytarski is a reporter for the Cloquet Pine Journal covering a mix of news and sports.
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