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Building the workforce of the future: Proactivity is required

Photo by Tammy Scheffer
Lori Tapani and Traci Tapani

The biggest challenge in running our small business in Stacy, Minnesota, hasn’t been working together as sisters. It hasn’t even been explaining to people that, although the shop is called Wyoming Machine, we aren’t based anywhere near the state of Wyoming.

No, the biggest challenge has been finding employees to work in our precision sheet metal fabricating business. That’s not necessarily a unique dilemma in our state, with the latest unemployment rate at about 3 percent, a figure that’s in part the result of baby boomer retirements.

What makes us different is that we started thinking and working toward a solution to this challenge 18 years ago, at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps that’s because our parents were aging and, as a family business, we’re connected to thinking about people going through transitions, in life and in jobs.

A labor wake-up call

Our real wake-up call came when we read a Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2000, which stated that almost 54 percent of workers 45 and older would leave the metals manufacturing industry between 1998 and 2008.

Not wanting to wait for someone else to provide a solution, we decided to join up with nearby Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC).

We began hosting manufacturing tours, allowing people to experience a modern-day manufacturing environment firsthand. For those who never came in the door because they thought manufacturing could never be a fit for them, we went to them. We got involved in Women in Technology, with a program introducing sixth-grade girls to STEM careers.

Like the best of plans, this early work began to pay off three years ago when, like many employers, we were faced with many open positions and hardly any applications. 

Recognizing other relevant experiences

Through our collaboration with PTCC, we learned about Sue Greeley from North Branch, Minnesota. Sue, in her mid-40s, had great life experiences but didn’t have hands-on experience in manufacturing. Typically, we’d hire someone with sheet metal knowledge to be an inspector in the quality department, but this time we decided to take a chance on Sue.

We could tell she was a self-starter from her work at PTCC, where she took classes and earned valuable credentials. She had a good personality fit for our company and, again, we were facing very few qualified candidates.

Sue now leads the inspection department, supervising two others, and her compensation has increased with her responsibilities.

We’re humbled that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce recently honored our partnership with PTCC and our dedication to helping develop the talent needed for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

We’re especially grateful to share this recognition with tremendously larger companies, including one of our state’s largest employers, Honeywell. It is an early adopter of emerging technologies such as virtual reality to try to make upskilling, onboarding, and other skill building processes more efficient and effective.

In spite of these efforts, more needs to be done. There are currently 5 million unfilled jobs, partly because of an underprepared workforce, yet the unemployment rate for people 20–24 sits at 7 percent. If we hadn’t thought about upskilling the small business workforce, and specifically our workforce, we would just be complaining about the problem, instead of proactively doing something to fix it.

Lori and Traci Tapani are Minnesota sisters who have owned and operated Wyoming Machine for 24 years.  

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