Labour challenge: Recruiting the right fit

May-Jun 2016 Wood Industry 250Everybody wants a skilled, conscientious worker in the shop, whether the operation requires two, 10 or more on the floor.

Wood shop managers across Canada all say the same thing — it’s tough to fill positions. Enns Cabinetry in St. Catharines, Ont., is no exception.

Co-owner Bev Enns says the residential cabinet and millwork manufacturing and design company has been hiring and interviewing for positions in both its shop and software drawings department.

Of the 15 employees, 10 are in the shop.

“There aren’t a lot of people with a lot of skill out there,” says Enns. “We need someone to plug and play. We don’t need to spend a lot of time training people.”

College wood shop program graduates haven’t been the solutions for Enns Cabinetry, either. “We have had some come out of a college situation before. They really haven’t been taught what they need to know to work in this industry. Their skills are very, very basic and not that helpful when it comes to actual working on the floor.”

In one case, the company took on a high school co-op student who was interested in woodworking.

“He worked for us for four years. Great attitude. But that was his personality, it had nothing to do with training of any sort I don’t think. It had to do with the young man himself.”

Over at Atcan Industries in Dieppe, N.B., near Moncton, the kitchen cabinet and countertop company also employs 15 with 10 in the shop. During the busy season after Christmas, those numbers do go up, according to Kevin King, finance and administration manager at Atcan.

To find workers, the company uses a variety of methods. “We use online services such as Kijiji or a government website. And we have gone to local colleges for students who might be looking for something.”

New Brunswick colleges nearby include the francophone New Brunswick Community College (CCNB) and Eastern College at a variety of campus locations. CCNB boasts a woodworking and cabinetmaking curriculum, and its Campbellton Campus houses the Atlantic Woodworking Centre of Excellence.

Atcan has hired some college students, including a civil technologist, but typically not for labourer positions in the shop. “Someone who has worked with wood or dealt with assembly work” is preferred, says King. “We train those people one-on-one within our establishment.”

For training on the automated equipment in the Atcan shop, vendor experts come in to bring operators up to speed, he adds. King did say that the company has had pretty good success hiring over the years, but “you’re always going to have people that just don’t meet expectations once you hire them.”

RURAL SETTING EVEN TOUGHER
When it comes to two-man operations, SI Woodworking of Watson, Sask., and Luxury Woodworking of Walkerton, Ont., face similar challenges. Len Schmidt of SI Woodworking bought his business seven years ago and hired a “local kid” three years ago and trained him up personally.

Because of the rural location about 100 miles from both Regina and Saskatoon, Schmidt says, “finding people out here is really tough,” even though there is an opportunity for his business to expand. SI Woodworking services include creating custom, kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, as well as custom closets and furniture.

At one point, his employee had a chance to start at an apprenticeship program “except it involved being gone for up to three months in Edmonton. At the time the couple was having a child so it became out of the question.”

Schmidt notes that college-trained workers “end up going into the large shops in the city where it’s basic production line stuff. They don’t necessary get to use what they’ve learned, but they get paid well.”

The remoteness of the SI Woodworking shop means that getting one-on-one training from equipment vendors is a challenge, too. “Trying to get equipment guys out here is pretty tough. “When you’re out this far, you’re on your own.”

SPECIALTY PROGRAM ADVANTAGE
Luxury Woodworking owner Luke Lorenz currently has one employee and is working on hiring another at the moment.

The custom cabinet manufacturer provides custom kitchens, vanities, built in wall units and solid surface counter-tops. His current employee was discovered through “a friend of a friend” and an earlier part-timer found the company on its Facebook page.

Lorenz’s existing staffer came out of a woodworking program at Kitchener, Ont.-based Conestoga College to Luxury Woodworking after being five months out of school. Lorenz also apprenticed in cabinetmaking at Conestoga.

Wood-industry-related courses at Conestoga include the Cabinetmaker apprenticeship, Carpentry Construction Techniques, Woodworking Manufacturing Management, Woodworking Technician and the Woodworking Technology co-op program.

Lorenz’s five-year-old business only hired its first full-time employee a year ago, is adding another this year full-time and “hopes to keep going — it’s definitely a work in progress — the sky’s the limit.”

At Enns Cabinetry, its high-school co-op student that turned into an employee after graduation also went on to do a cabinetmaker apprenticeship at Niagara College in Welland, Ont., next door to St. Catharines. But that success story is not guaranteed every time.

“We have attempted to do (apprenticeships) twice before and it was like these guys have no natural bent or gift for this,” says Enns. “The desire to do it and the ability to do it are two completely different things.”

Enns explains that if the individual waits until college to do a co-op in order to discover an aptitude, that is probably too late. “They’ve got figure out whether they like this or not (earlier).”

These days, Enns adds, “We don’t have six months to spend training them.” Like the example of the high school co-op student, the company “would have to have a special case where we would bring them on as an apprentice.”

Levels of government occasionally offer partial or complete salaries to manufacturing companies that want to train new employees, but that doesn’t appeal to Enns. “The government money is fine and everything,” she says.

“But that would never be an incentive for us to do this. The individual has to fit the billing of what we need before we would ever consider that. That would be an added bonus to the fact that we found somebody.

“The government thing means that we have got to find somebody just to fit this profile in order to get the money. That’s just not going to happen. Our time is way too valuable for that.”

THREAT OF UNIONIZATION
Neither Enns Cabinetry or Atcan Industries are union shops. But what would happen if a union came knocking at Enns Cabinetry, like it did at Gingrich Woodcraft in Devlin, Ont.?

In the wake of union ratification in 2014, the Mennonite-owned, 18-year-old business was shuttered. It had 25 employees, not far from the size of Enns’ small business.

“We would shut the door before that would happen — we’re not that big,” says Enns. “We’re family run. We treat our employees like family. They get paid really well.
“There would be nothing gained by them by having a union here — other than they would lose more of their money to union dues.”

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