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Small businesses find ways to beat skills shortage

There are three jobs open at Rodon Group, a plastic parts manufacturer near Philadelphia. But despite the reports of a shortage of skilled workers nationwide, CEO Michael Araten isn’t sweating it.

Rodon, located in Hatfield, Pa., works with local community colleges to make sure students — the firm’s prospective employees — get the skills they need to work at the company making plastic parts for products such as bed frames and machinery. Anyone using its manufacturing equipment needs to have math and computer skills.

“We’re willing to look at non-traditional methods,” Araten said.

Companies across the country have been working short-handed because it’s hard to find workers with the skills they need. The shortage is harder for small businesses than it is for larger ones. They don’t have as many employees to step in to when there’s an opening. Twenty-one percent of the owners who recently took part in a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business said they had openings they couldn’t fill.

But some owners are finding solutions. Like Araten, they partner with schools. Some are running in-house training programs or pair skilled employees with co-workers who aren’t up on the latest technology. And others are changing their recruiting strategy.

The skilled-worker deficit is getting more attention as the economy improves and businesses hire more. President Obama mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address last month, calling for more training for workers.

THE PARTNERSHIP SOLUTION

Araten and other Philadelphia-area manufacturers have formed a group to work with local community colleges to be sure students get the ground in math, science and computer skills that they’ll need for jobs like building and operating robots. When they arrive at Rodon, they’ll start learning the company’s manufacturing processes. Rodon, which also makes K’Nex toys, brightly colored plastic pieces that can be combined to form cars, animals, rollercoasters and other objects, uses a manufacturing process called plastic injection molding that’s run with computers and robots.

Rodon’s workforce of about 100 is getting older. CEO Araten wants to be sure he has people ready to step in as workers in their 50s and 60s start to retire.

“That’s why we’ve increased our relationship with schools to be sure we’re first in line,” he said.

Tailored Label Products’ partner is a program called Second Chance, which finds training and jobs for students who are in danger of dropping out of high school, said Tracy Tenpenny, a vice president at the Menomonee Falls, Wis. company. The students learn how to use complex computer-operated machines to create customized labels that go into car engines and electronic equipment. They spend two hours each day in class and six hours at the factory earning slightly above minimum wage.

Tailored Label turned to Second Chance as the company started to grow and needed more skilled workers. The company has tripled in size over the last seven years.

“It’s not easy finding people who are going to fit,” Tenpenny said. “We needed someone who was able to handle a computer and utilize a digital die cutter.”

Some of the students leave the company after they graduate. Tailored Label has hired several, and is paying for one of them to get his associate’s degree in technical manufacturing at a nearby community college.

THE TEAMWORK APPROACH

Technology has also created a skills deficit for companies that do marketing and public relations. The social media explosion has created a new way of getting publicity — a blurb on Facebook or 140-character posting on Twitter that bears little resemblance to the two-page press release that is the standard in public relations. PR firms need people who are adept at all the methods, but few fit that description, said David Chapman, owner of Nine One Nine Marketing in Holly Springs, N.C.

“It’s difficult to bring these two worlds together,” Chapman said.

The problem is generational. Older staffers spent years writing press releases and don’t think in terms of constantly posting short, quick tweets. Many younger staffers, meanwhile, haven’t learned how to craft a longer story.

Chapman’s solution is to team staffers so a client’s message will reach all types of media. But that does mean more staffers working on an account than in the past.

“It’s hurting productivity, and I can’t necessarily bill my clients for that inefficiency,” Chapman said.

THE RECRUITING STRATEGY

The super-high-skilled worker that Burt-Watts needs is going to be hard to find — and the company knows it, said Heather Merz, its chief financial officer.

The Austin, Texas contracting company has done mostly interior work, but decided in 2011 it would expand its division that constructs buildings from the ground up. It began looking for workers with highly specialized skills: They had to be knowledgeable about the Austin construction industry, specialize in “ground-up” construction and have connections with good subcontractors.

Burt-Watts decided that the usual methods of searching for candidates — advertising and word of mouth — might not work because of the job requirements.

“We started realizing, this may be a little more challenging than we thought,” Merz said.

So the company decided to search more aggressively for candidates. It sends a team of recruiters to Texas colleges that grant degrees in construction, like Texas A&M. They go to job fairs to interview students in much the same way that law firms and Fortune 500 companies do. The strategy also gives the company access to experienced job candidates through alumni offices.

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