Monday, October 15, 2018

Local Business

Perking up: Chippewa Valley employers raise pay, benefits, find other ways to attract workers in a tight labor market

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    Components training specialist Marcia LeCleir points out procedures recently while training new employees, from left, Rodney Mikkelson, Karen Bohn, Steve Duchesneau and Andrew Kirschling at the Hutchinson Technology Inc. plant in Eau Claire. View more photos at

    Staff photo by Spencer Nickel
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  • Student-Transit

    Eau Claire Student Transit uses a school bus parked near the intersection of Clairemont Avenue and Menomonie Street to advertise its search for drivers.

    Staff photoby Steve Kinderman
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Editor’s Note: This article initially appeared in the fall edition of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine published by the Leader-Telegram. View the magazine at​magazines. 

Hutchinson Technology Inc. in Eau Claire recently raised its starting pay for production positions.

TTM Technologies in Chippewa Falls added an on-site health center to cut workers’ health care costs.

Student Transit of Eau Claire transformed a big yellow school bus into a giant employee recruitment billboard.

Across the Chippewa Valley, employers are responding to an extremely tight labor market by pulling out all the stops to attract new workers.

With the November unemployment rate in the Eau Claire metropolitan area at 2.5 percent — the lowest since 2000 — and the latest Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. survey revealing that 85 percent of area employers report having difficulty filling some positions, regional workforce officials agree the tight labor market represents a major challenge for businesses hoping to grow.

“The competition for labor has become so much more fierce that a lot of companies are looking for new ways to attract talent,” said Scott Hodek, regional labor market economist for the state Department of Workforce Development.

One tried-and-true method of attracting workers is by raising pay.

“Employers are doing surveys and figuring out where their wages need to be to attract workers, and because of that wages are going up,” said Steve Blodgett, DWD’s area workforce development director at the Eau Claire Regional Job Center.

But other employers are trying different ways to make their workplaces appealing, Hodek said. 

That can include offering flexible scheduling, more vacation time, better health care benefits, on-site day care, shorter probation or benefits vesting periods, or even transportation or housing assistance, local workforce experts said.

 “Businesses are trying to be as creative as they can to make sure their work environment is optimal for both the employee and the employer,” said David Minor, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. “The creativity now is about employers doing what they can, without giving away the ship, to make it easy for employees to come over to them.”

Feeling the pressure

The tight labor market has affected temporary employment agencies in two distinct ways — they, too, are finding it harder to recruit applicants and yet more companies are seeking their help to fill job vacancies.

In mid-December, Manpower was recruiting for well over 100 unfilled positions between its Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls offices and for more than 1,000 open positions in western and central Wisconsin, said Candi Geist, market leader for the two local branches.  

“That’s an extreme change from when I started with Manpower 8½ years ago,” Geist said, explaining that initially the offices always had more applicants than job orders, but now that situation is reversed.

She pointed out that applying at a temp agency is an efficient way for workers in this market to fill out one application and be considered for positions at several area employers.   

Doherty Staffing Solutions in Eau Claire has increased advertising and its use of social media and started cold-calling people and holding recruitment events to grow its applicant pool, said staffing specialist Ancilla Walter.

“We’re basically recruiting from anywhere we can find people,” Walter said.

Adding incentives

HTI has taken a number of steps to find enough workers to expand production since it completed a merger with TDK in October 2016.

Beyond increasing starting wages and the premium it offers for employees working night shifts, the company changed its policies to make new workers immediately eligible for paid holidays and health, dental and paid-time-off benefits, said Connie Pautz, vice president of human resources.

HTI also has ramped up its recruitment efforts on college campuses, implemented a program in which employees can earn a bonus for referring new workers and expanded its use of social media for recruiting.

The company is recruiting workers for production, technician and engineer openings.

“We’re confident we can get the message out about the opportunities we have available and meet the staffing needs for our growth,” Pautz said.

Healthy perk

TTM Technologies  launched its employee health center in November.

“It is a difficult labor market. I hear about it on the radio, I see it in the newspaper, I see signs posted at all the businesses when I drive to work,” said Sheridan Welch, general manager of TTM’s Chippewa Falls plant. “At TTM we’re looking at differentiating ourselves from everyone else by what we’re providing employees when they get here.”

The health center is the most visible step in that direction. 

The center offers its nearly 800 employees 45-minute appointments five days a week with a licensed nurse practitioner, a medical assistant or a physical therapist and allows all full- and part-time workers to attend those sessions during their shifts. The facility offers preventative exams, sick care, physical therapy and health coaching.

“The feedback we’ve gotten has been tremendous. It’s just so convenient. They don’t have to leave work and they don’t have to take vacation,” Welch said, noting that appointments cost a fraction of the price of traditional doctor visits.

She is confident the center will serve as a good tool for recruiting new employees and retaining existing ones.

Welch said TTM also has made a concerted effort to support community organizations and promote recreational activities for employees — all part of a push to make it a fun place to work that people can be proud to call their employer.

The plant, which builds printed circuit boards, also recently raised starting wages.

“You need to be competitive,” Welch said.

So far, the strategies appear to be working, as the company has been able to fill open positions. It was advertising for an additional 20 to 30 workers in December.

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Eau Claire-based Student Transit recently raised its starting wage to $15 an hour to aid recruiting for new school bus drivers and monitors — folks who accompany children on early learning program routes and those with medical or other special needs.

“We realize we’re going to be competing with newcomers to the market for employees, so we figured it was time,” said Marty Klukas, general manager. 

The company trumpeted the news with a large banner attached to a yellow school bus parked near the intersection of Clairemont Avenue and Menomonie Street.

“The sign on that bus is our main recruitment tool,” Klukas said.

Student Transit also offers stipends for employees who refer new workers, pays out bonuses for drivers based on attendance, provides all training in-house and permits drivers to bring their children on the bus with them.

“The biggest benefit is this place absolutely rocks,” Klukas said. “It’s a great place to work and you get to have an impact on young people.”

Menards is another major local employer that recently offered incentives to attract workers. A recent classified ad in the Leader-Telegram listed a wage increase and $1,000 sign-on bonus for some new production employees.

“We hope that our highly competitive wages, profit sharing program, vacation pay, employee discounts, weekend premiums and other benefits will continue to draw people to Menards,” said company spokesman Jeff Abbott. “We are expanding here in the Chippewa Valley and have new, exciting career opportunities opening up that we are filling reasonably well.” 

More competition

Manpower’s Geist said some of the upward pressure on wages and other recruitment and retention incentives are in response to new employers entering the market and ratcheting up competition for workers. 

“The Mills Fleet Farm distribution center has a lot of employers nervous right now,” she said. Company officials are expected to hire at least 239 full-time employees by September to work at the 1.1 million-square-foot distribution center in Chippewa Falls. 

Geist said she has talked to business leaders recently who have made available flexible scheduling options, added retention and attendance bonuses, shortened waiting periods for benefit eligibility and even offered employees who leave the opportunity to reclaim their seniority, compensation and benefit levels if they return within 30 days. 

“Right now,” she said, “is a great time for anybody looking for work or looking to move up in a company.”

Contact: 715-833-9209,, @ealscoop on Twitter

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