Help Wanted: Why manufacturing temps are in demand

Oct 5, 2011

Here are four very bad words you hear a lot these days:

There.  Are.  No.  Jobs.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

Yes, the manufacturing sector lost six million jobs last decade.  But now, staffing agencies that place temporary workers in manufacturing say business is booming.

To see for yourself, just walk up to an employment agency like Staffing Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The first thing you’ll notice is an unusual sign on the door.  It reads: “Now Hiring.”

Then inside, you’ll hear this:

“You’ll be required to place the parts on a machine, press a button to activate the machine, and remove the parts to inspect them, okay?”

Tiffany Easlick is briefing a new hire, Katie Sherwood, on her new, temporary, post.

Sherwood is, “pretty excited.”  She says it only took a couple weeks to find a job.  She laughs, signs some paperwork, and asks about safety glasses.

Sherwood’s little giggle is a far cry from the steady drumbeat of dire job numbers we’ve all
heard.  Shannon Burkel is Vice President of Sales for Staffing Inc..  From her perspective:

“There are  tons of jobs!”

Burkel says the business of matching temps with West Michigan manufacturers is better now than it’s been for the last ten years.  Even better than before the economic crisis.

“We are a leading indicator,” she says.  “The first to fall and the first to climb out.”

Same goes for Stacey Bigelow’s firm on the other side of the state.

“We’ve doubled our staff in the last year.  I mean it’s nuts,” Bigelow says, “but it’s taking longer to find people.  You know, our job boards are full.  Every day, they’re full.”

Bigelow says her company, Advance Staffing Solutions, is on track to have its biggest year ever.  So what’s going on here?

Temporary factory workers are nothing new.  However, the current demand for temps is partly the result of massive layoffs during the economic crisis.  Some manufacturers cut deeply into their core staffs, so deeply that as hiring resumes, they’re really starting from the ground up.

Shannon Burkel says a lot of companies are now building up a buffer of temporary workers.

“The hopes are, with little bumps in the economy, they never have to reach into their core
staff again.  And go through that financial and emotional pain that they had to,” she says.

Plus a lot of companies are just skittish about making permanent hires while the economy
is so uncertain.  They want to see demonstrated skills and they want to know the work will last.  Burkel says that cautiousness is turning trial-for-hire into THE route to a permanent manufacturing job.

Sure, some companies may treat temps like commodities.  But already this year, about 400 of Burkel’s temporary workers have been hired permanently by companies like Beverlin Manufacturing in Grand Rapids.

Rick Watson is the company’s president; his business makes perforated tubing and other
sheet metal fabrications.  Watson always tries out potential hires as temps first.  He says it’s the best way to ensure a good marriage and avoid liabilities.

“A lot of companies are hiring all their prospective employees through temp agencies,” he
says.  “Not just what used to be blue collar.  Now it’s technical people, it’s professional
people, the full gamut of people.”

Finding that full gamut of employees is the real challenge.  Staffing professionals say there just aren’t enough people coming through the door with up-to-date technical skills.  Not enough experienced welders, not enough high end machine operators and repairmen.  Bigelow says she doesn’t care what the unemployment numbers say.  There’s a labor shortage.

“I think we’ve been pushing our kids to go to college for so many years that they’re not
in these apprenticeship programs or any of these trades,” she says.  “So these people are very hard to find.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by manufacturers across the region, and it’s a problem that
may persist even if job opportunities continue to rise.