Employees at Frederick’s Wright Manufacturing are used to working overtime to hit their targeted number of lawn mowers manufactured each day.
Most of the employees, who do everything from cutting steel on a laser printer to welding the pieces of the mower frames together, prefer the extra pay, said Jeremiah Wright, vice president of manufacturing.
And that overtime is critical to Wright’s productivity because the company has about 15 open positions in its manufacturing staff, Wright estimated. The company is growing faster than it can hire. And as a result, it must rely on its employees to work overtime.
“We haven’t fallen too far from what our customers needed and wanted, but our team has had to work a lot of overtime to do it,” Wright said.
Wright Manufacturing is by no means alone in its need for more employees, and are also not alone in how long it’s taken them to hire. Many businesses in Frederick County are struggling to attract and retain employees in the midst of an economy that boasts such low unemployment — only 2.8 percent in Frederick County. By comparison, the national unemployment rate is 3.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.
In fact, 40 percent of Frederick County businesses surveyed on Business Appreciation Week identified a need for workforce services, said Helen Propheter, director of the Office of Economic Development. And many of those businesses surveyed, 63 percent, are looking to expand in the next year.
That creates a dilemma: Some businesses are expanding faster than their employment can sustain.
“When unemployment was higher ... it was way different,” Wright said. “Now you have such low unemployment, you’ll have less applicants overall, and less résumés to look at.”
Help wantedBusinesses in Frederick County with the most current openings are Thermo Fischer, AstraZeneca, Frederick Health, RR Donnelley and NVR Building Products Co., Propheter said.
Those jobs span a large variety of professions and pay grades.
For instance, Resource MFG, a temp agency that recruits for RR Donnelley, was seeking to hire about 80 employees as of last summer. Over the last several months, that number has been whittled down to 20, said Tyler Donnelly, staffing manager at Resource MFG.
Donnelly cites the high turnover at the company, a large printing plant in Thurmont, as one reason it’s difficult to keep employment completely filled. Employees who work on the manufacturing floor work 12-hour shifts with a schedule of three days on, three days off, four days on, four days off. The shifts then repeat.
“The 12-hour shifts can be wearing on people,” Donnelly said.
Positions that are available, such as machine operators or mail sorters, don’t require much experience. Donnelly said that younger people coming into the company use the job as a steppingstone rather than a long-term career path.
“Right now, the younger generation doesn’t really understand that getting in the door and starting at the bottom and working your way up is how you need to go, and that’s another struggle we’re up against,” she said.
Donnelly doesn’t think that pay is a problem when it comes to recruitment, as the company is fairly competitive. Employees who start through the temp agency begin at between $12 and $14 an hour. After 90 days, they can transfer to being full employees of RR Donnelley, where they will get paid between $14 and $18 an hour.
Similarly, Wright said that the company tries to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to pay. Its current starting wage — that would be for an employee with no experience — is $14.50 an hour for welders, and $12.75 for anybody else on the manufacturing floor.
The company gradually increases its wages throughout the year to adjust for wage inflation.
Wright doesn’t see skills as a deterrent either, because the company can train anybody who is hired to do any of the jobs on the floor.
“We’re willing to train people from the ground up, with the work skills needed for machining and there is a lot of skill involved in all of our processes, and there’s a lot to learn, but we love training people on those skills,” Wright said.
Donnelly said one deterrent to potential applicants or newer employees is stress. The company has to work with a high awareness of mailing dates.
“But it’s something that the supervisors are very good about, understanding that new people aren’t going to understand the stress level and it might be a little hard,” Donnelly said.
And while there are plenty of other manufacturing jobs in Frederick County, Donnelly doesn’t see competition as a huge challenge.
“The only real competitive facility for us nearby is [NVR Building Products Co.], which is right next door, the building facilities. But other than that, there’s really not much competition,” Donnelly said. “Obviously we’re not far from Frederick or Gettysburg or anything like that, so people do go to Frederick or Gettysburg.”
More jobs to comeFrederick County employs 106,415 people, which is an 11 percent increase over the last five years, according to second-quarter data from the Maryland Department of Labor.
“So that’s huge when you’re thinking about our current businesses and their expansion and growth that brings new business in,” Propheter said. “The blend of the success of our current businesses and the fact that we have had some pretty big wins in the last two years.”
Propheter said that jobs in Frederick County are expected to increase by 26 percent by 2040, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Frederick County is accessible to potential employees from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other counties in Maryland. But it’s also easy for residents to commute outside the county.
“I hope that people who are leaving Frederick County to go to other counties in the state are paying attention to some of our job openings,” Propheter said, “because I do think that there are great opportunities for people who could reduce their commute time and start ... a new career with a local business.”
Selling the jobPropheter said that companies that are trying to attract new candidates can benefit from branding their entire application process.
That includes telling applicants about retention initiatives and potential career paths before they are even hired.
“So they’re really selling themselves prior to even a first day on the job, or the first-week-on-the-job orientation,” Propheter said. “Which to me is kind of a shift over the past couple of years.”