Brand Strategy

Manufacturing Voices: Insight into Talent Acquisition & Retention Strategies in Wisconsin

by Bridgette Palm
4 min

Each year the Waukesha County Business Alliance brings together leaders in manufacturing in Wisconsin to discuss key issues facing the industry in the coming year. It’s been covered extensively in the last year, so it should come as no surprise that the number one challenge addressed was talent acquisition & retention.

However, throughout the conversation, other critical issues facing manufacturers in Wisconsin, such as marketing technology, succession planning, and the impact of Foxconn on the local economy, were addressed as well.

We’ve split this out into a series focusing on each of these key segments: Talent Acquisition & Retention, Technology, Growth Strategy.

Workforce Challenges in Manufacturing: Talent Retention & Acquisition

Roxanne Baumann, the Director of Global Engagement at WMEP, kicked off the panel discussion by addressing a top concern for manufacturers in Southeastern Wisconsin: Finding the skilled talent necessary to grow their business.

It was universally agreed upon that skilled talent is challenging to come by. Most everyone on the panel identified a commitment to growing the next generation of manufacturing talent by fostering educational and learning opportunities in the form of apprenticeships and internships.

Leverage Top Employees As a Source of Referrals

Most of the panel place a significant amount of trust in referrals from existing employees and the community at large. “A employees will refer A employees, B employees will refer C employees, so stick with asking A employees,” recommended Jennifer Hansen, the General Manager of Trelleborg & President/Owner of The Anderson Group, Anderson Packaging.

She also indicated that networking with other business leaders has proven an effective source of high-quality referrals, and suggested those kinds of referrals should be prioritized.

“When talent is floated your way, whether you have an open position or not, take them.”

Jennifer Hansen

GM of Trelleborg &

President and Owner of The Anderson Group, Anderson Packaging

Consider Alternative Work Environments to Draw in Talent

In addition to employing a workforce here in Wisconsin, Dave Morrow, President/CEO of Zero Zone Inc., has taken a more modern approach to attracting skilled labor: As part of their team growth initiatives, they locate talent in other areas of the country and offer remote positions to their service and sales team.

“It’s hard to get people from the south to move up here,” he admitted, “but if they are a good fit we allow them to work out of their house.”

Ultimately, the panel concurred that the biggest challenge is with a need to change the perception of the industry among the next generation. Audience member Paul Bartkowiak, Vice President of Stanek Tool, asked the panel how those of us involved in manufacturing can instill an appreciation of the trades in the next generation.

“We need to show people it’s meaningful employment, that there are opportunities to advance, and the potential to make more money in the trades than through a career path through university,” said Dirk Maroske, President/CEO of Aztalan Engineering, Inc.

Collaborate with Local Educational Organizations to Attract Young Talent

There has been a rise in programming to promote awareness of the trades as a viable alternative to college.

Programs like the Waukesha Business Alliance Schools to Skills aim to rectify the growing generational gap in the trades by connecting manufacturing companies with students from local universities, high schools, and even middle schools.

Many on the panel admitted that it often starts with the people we are closest to in life, citing examples of when they’d brought their children to work or encouraged employees to offer tours of the floor to their families. “We have an obligation to our own children to get them involved in manufacturing because we’re involved in it,” said Jennifer.

Outside of our homes and those closest to us, there was a rousing call for changing the perception of the trades across the nation. Panelist John O’Connell, President/CFO/COO of Geo-Synthetics perhaps best expressed the stigma that manufacturing companies are battling in talent attraction and retention: “Just because you choose the trades, it doesn’t make you any less than anyone who has gone off to college.”

Manufacturers Must Address These Challenges to Stay Competitive

In the coming year, the landscape of manufacturing is changing. To stay competitive, it’ll be essential to have a growth strategy in place, proactively address technology, and attract and retain talent.

As Roxanne mentioned earlier in the discussion, it’s vital that we start rebranding manufacturing.

There is a misconception that careers in manufacturing aren’t viable, lucrative, or challenging. At this point, investing in technology and educational opportunities for young talent, like apprenticeships and internships, are an investment in the future of your business and industry growth in Wisconsin.

Manufacturing is an industry that has long been a part of Wisconsin and our youth have opportunities to thrive here, but we need to change the narrative.

We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to start telling a better story.

Bridgette Palm
Bridgette has developed a career around content. Her work as a writer and editor began nearly ten years ago, and since she has harnessed her experience working as a ghostwriter for business owners to develop marketing strategies that connect businesses to their ideal audiences through content. When not devoting her eye to content revision and development, she can be found reading, enjoying the diverse and delicious Milwaukee restaurant scene, or taking long road trips to explore America.