Manufacturing  June 4, 2024

CEO Roundtable: Manufacturing leaders get creative to attract, retain workforce 

FORT COLLINS — There is enough every day to keep a manufacturing CEO’s mind occupied, but in Northern Colorado, keeping a strong, resilient and satisfied workforce is chief among them.

Whether they are working on workplace culture or offering training internships or apprenticeships, attracting and retaining a talented and steady workforce is getting harder when housing inflation prices their employees out of the market.

BizWest hosted a CEO Roundtable on Tuesday at Broadcom in Fort Collins, discussing top-of-mind concerns and possible solutions with CEOs from various manufacturing companies in Greeley, Loveland and Fort Collins.

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Their worries ranged from workforce development to inflation to the national political climate, even worker marijuana use, but chief among them was attracting and retaining a workforce that can afford housing nearby. There are no easy, or one-size-fits-all answers, but many are enhancing their internship and apprenticeship programs to train students or existing workers on the job.

“We’re pulling from operator ranks of those demonstrating an aptitude and launching into developing them to be our future technicians,” said Tim Seitz, general manager of Anheuser Busch Brewery in Fort Collins. “It’s both career growth and investing in their career with us. We’re really looking at the retention side.”

While internships have long had a place in the modern workforce, apprenticeships are growing. These are on-the-job training positions to move up the ranks, or even serving as a way to enter the workforce.

Janel Highfill, associate vice president of Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships for Front Range Community College, said interest in this area is growing, and it has become a selling point to parents.

“Interest in apprenticeships is really, really growing,” she said. 

At present, she said, she is talking with 10 companies looking to start apprenticeship programs. Broadcom of Fort Collins  is a key company that worked with Front Range to upskill their employee base. Front Range instructors teach courses at Broadcom outside of the normal workdays to help employees get their two-year degrees, which is a minimum requirement to move up the ranks at the company. 

“Once we get people at the associate level, we’ll pay for their education, and they’ll be eligible for the next position,” said Carrie Pelton, vice president of operations for Broadcom.

Sean Nohavec, in business development with Plante Moran, and a sponsor of the CEO Roundtable, said he’s seeing a growing trend of internships replacing college. “Ten years ago, internships were not mentioned near as much. Everyone I’m talking to is talking about internships. When you’re trying to find people, recruiters are saying, ‘Don’t go to college; we’ll just train you ourselves. You don’t need to accrue $60,000 in debt. I am fascinated that might be a direction we’re headed.”

Back to front; Carrie Pelton with Broadcom, Darin Atteberry with Elevations Credit Union, Janel Highfill with Front Range Community College, Bob Walker with Walker Manufacturing, Lisa Clay with Advance Tank and Construction, Scott Wiley with Grocentia, and Doug Rhoda with Vectis Automation discuss workforce issues at the CEO Roundtable on Tuesday. Jeff Nuttall/BizWest

Doug Rhoda, chairman and founder of Vectis Automation Inc, said he has been blessed with a good pipeline of talent for his internships.

“I highly endorse the whole intern program. It’s a critical success factor,” Rhoda said.

Yet, inflation is pricing manufacturing employees out of the markets. Lisa Clay, CEO of Advance Tank and Construction Co. in Wellington, said she has lost Colorado-native employees locally to her locations in Texas or Alabama, where they could afford to buy a house. 

Inflation has put pressure on employers to raise pay, but there is only so far they can go. 

“When we came out of the pandemic, we were just trying to get warm bodies,” said Jay Dokter, CEO of Vergent Products Inc., a manufacturer and product-design company in Loveland. “Now, we’re seeing economic and cost pressures, inflation is driving up pay, which is squeezing margins, which is a problem for us.”

He added that mandated minimum wages, in addition to a lack of affordable housing and child care, puts increased pressure on employees.

“We’re addressing that piece, but those costs are a big problem,” he said. “Our entry-level type people are getting hammered. They can’t live in Loveland.”

Robert Thompson, vice president of operations for Envirotech Services, a dust control and de-icing solution manufacturer in Greeley, said he is fortunate to have had many applicants for five internships this summer. Also concerned about rising housing costs in Greeley, he said he worked a deal with some University Apartments to offer short-term leases for those interns. 

“We were getting the applicants in, but we had to get creative with housing,” he said. “There are ways around” the housing situation.

Not for all, however. Bob Walker, CEO of Walker Manufacturing Co. in Timnath, said he has employees who live east of Greeley, because that is the only place they can afford a home.

As the population grows, that could help create more of a housing problem, said Darin Atteberry, market manager for Elevations Credit Union “Greeley is going to be 400,000 to 500,000 people and the largest population center. Fort Collins is projected to grow to 255,000. There’s a very significant undersupply of housing and diversity of housing.”

Sean Nohavec of Plante Moran in Broomfield talks with Tim Seitz, general manager for Anheuser Busch Brewery before Tuesday’s CEO Roundtable. Sharon Dunn/BizWest

Still, these CEOs also recognize they need to find ways to make manufacturing “sexy” to gain the interest of entry-level employees. For some manufacturers, it can be as easy as adding the latest technology such as robotics, which tends to intrigue and excite younger workers. For others, who do not offer the bells and whistles, they rely on workplace culture.

They not only have to fill entry-level jobs with younger generations but also convince older workers to do the jobs younger people are not interested in, such as sales.

Culture, the CEOs agreed, was a negligible cost for the return on employee morale. Nohavec said he was surprised to learn employees get behind manufactured holidays, such as National Oreo Day, or Rootbeer Float Day. At his company, employees turned those celebrations into team-building events.

Steve Anderson, CEO of Forney Industries Inc., a welding and metal working company in Fort Collins, said his company offers events like “Breakfast on Wednesdays.”

“I swear if I ever took breakfast on Wednesdays away, I’d lose half my people. For us, it’s about culture and how we build and make our company a place where people feel welcome. … It makes it a better environment for work, so it isn’t all just drudgery.”

Scott Wiley, CEO of Growcentia Inc. in Loveland, said his employees feel the same way about Friday lunches. 

“I’d be hanging from a tree if I took those way,” he said.

Walker said he believes it is important to understand that employees are more than just the job they do. That’s why employees at his company are treated to weekend marriage retreats, personal finance courses, and weekly chapel services.

“You can say it’s none of my business what you do personally, but you’re a whole person,” Walker said. “What happens in their personal lives has a big effect” on their work.

Sharon Dunn
Sharon Dunn is an award-winning journalist covering business, banking, real estate, energy, local government and crime in Northern Colorado since 1994. She began her journalism career in Alaska after graduating Metropolitan State College in Denver in 1992. She found her way back to Colorado, where she worked at the Greeley Tribune for 25 years. She has a master's degree in communications management from the University of Denver. She is married and has one grown daughter — and a beloved English pointer at her side while she writes. When not writing, you may find her enjoying embroidery and crochet projects, watching football, or kayaking and birdwatching on a high-mountain lake.
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