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Heading through Columbus on U.S. Highway 30, drivers likely can’t help but notice the numerous marquees flashing at them as they pass. All of these signs have a similar message: Employees wanted.

For the better part of 70 years, Columbus has been an industrial mecca not only in Nebraska but throughout the Midwest as a whole. Companies like Cargill, Becton Dickinson, Columbus Hydraulics, Sidump’r Trailer and others line the busy thoroughfare in town.

And while all offer a plethora of employment opportunity, filling these vacancies and retaining the needed workforce numbers have continually been an uphill battle throughout recent history. At any given time, it has been reported that there are as many as 800 available jobs open in the community – many of which are manufacturing related.

During a recent Industrial Leaders Breakfast held at Wunderlich’s Catering & Barley Shoppe, numerous local manufacturing leaders representing several major industrial players in the Columbus community discussed their frustration and trouble filling job vacancies.

Phil Raimondo, president/CEO of Behlen Mfg. Co., discussed with those present about how Behlen and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce were working together to recruit a number of workers from Puerto Rico to fill vacancies while visiting on a work trip.

“So we are really excited about that opportunity to help recruit people to come work here,” Raimondo said. “Because obviously, we have the jobs today, we are going to have more jobs in six months from now and even more jobs in a year-and-a-half. So we are really looking forward to seeing our community grow.”

And the community certainly is slated to grow. Over the course of the next 18-24 months, 350-400 new doorways are expected to be erected in the Columbus community. Many of these homes fall under the workforce housing category, meaning each unit must cost under $250,000 to build, and if owner-occupied, must be under a sale price of $275,000 per unit.

Then-Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President K.C. Belitz, who officially left his post Feb. 28 for a new position with the Nebraska Community Foundation, noted that affordable housing could pay large dividends when it comes to recruiting and retaining workforce locally.

“It will truly change the game, which we have been working forever to do,” Belitz said of the impact new, available housing could have on filling jobs. “So, we really think that it will make a big difference for all of you (business leaders) recruiting people who want to live here.

“And that’s a big deal because if they (employees) are driving in from an hour-and-a-half, the odds are not as good that you (business leaders) will be able to keep them. And we know today that there are some people doing that (commuting) because of legitimate reasons -- because of the housing market. So, that is something that is going to change.”

And though change very well could be on the horizon, it doesn’t alleviate some of the current pain being felt by many local manufacturers.

“We are kind of in the same boat as everybody else,” said Joe Lawrence, plant manager of Vishay Intertechnology Inc. in Columbus.

He went on to discuss the issue at hand.

“We are constantly looking for people, and I see there’s always good competition with our signs,” he joked. “We need a lot of engineers and that’s always a struggle for us, and (getting) production associates on the floor is just as much of a challenge. And we always seem to be able to get people in the door, but it’s getting people to stay that’s painful."

And while that is a growing problem, companies aren’t just willing to sit back and take hit after hit to the face. Vishay, Behlen, BD and others are working to maximize the workforce they do have while providing accessible outlets for new faces to join their respective teams.

Sometimes, this is seen in the form of apprenticeship programs. Lawrence noted that apprenticeship programs are used to fill and retain workers who work in technical machinist-type positions.

Becton Dickinson, currently in the process of erecting its $60 million flagship plastic injection molding manufacturing facility slated for a 2021 opening, plans to invest $7 million to retain and retrain its associates for the different skill sets needed for plastic molding manufacturing or to facilitate their transfer to its other manufacturing facilities in Columbus or other sites across the BD network.

Tom Wrigley, of Behlen, noted the importance of on-site training in regard to maximizing performance and, hopefully, retaining trained employees.

“We have a training person that actually takes them and develops them,” Wrigley said of certain staff members. “(This training) provides them with equipment, teaches them how to do it (the job), and demonstrates their capability and then we can move them into the production area. And that’s been working pretty well as far as helping us meet our deficit in that particular area.”

Another local manufacturer isn’t struggling as much with retention, but rather the prospect of losing tenured employees. Tom Jarecke, director of manufacturing at FLEXcon, noted that employee retention and loyalty is very solid at his organization. However, the clock continually keeps ticking, which means certain employees will soon be on their way out the door.

“Our biggest challenge will be with retirement,” he said. “We have eight people scheduled to retire this year. And out of our workforce of 135 people, there’s probably about 25 percent that is over the age of 60. But, what we find within our company is that we have a good working environment – very clean, not strenuous-type work.

“So, 90 percent of our employees have been with us for 10 years. We’ve found that they don’t leave very quickly and that they stay with us.”

Although there’s no easy solution to solving the job vacancy dilemma, Columbus Economic Council Co-Chairman David Bell said he believes manufacturing jobs will continue to be rapidly filled in years to come.

“You look at Columbus’ history, we were an ag economy and then we grew into manufacturing,” Bell said. “A lot of effort has been made by the city, county and chamber over the last (decades) to develop this industrial base.

“Here we are in 2019, and we have a farm economy that has had low commodity prices for the last several years. And for the foreseeable future for the next two to four years in ag, it still doesn’t look promising. We’ve always had a lot of farm spouses – men and women – who have worked manufacturing jobs in Columbus. And that certainly might pick back up again.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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