Need Workers? Old Rules Need Not Apply

Kim Phelan

The dearth of labor in the metalcasting industry has become the No. 1 business concern among AFS-member foundries, according to recent member polling. In the first quarter of 2022, over 90% identified the workforce shortage and associated costs as the worst challenge they’re currently facing; more recently in June, 60% of foundries revealed that the shortfall of workers is currently hindering their ability to fully meet demand.

Many who participated in the AFS surveys—nearly 40%—are attempting to solve the crisis with a financial firehose, aiming increased wages at the problem and hoping for the best; but, as every business leader and HR professional knows, hope is not a strategy, and even with increased wages and Help Wanted signage galore, results have been largely underwhelming. Realizing it’s not all about money, many foundries are seeking answers to a problem they haven’t really wrestled with before.

And so, a new game is afoot, one of survival in which foundries are reevaluating old hiring strategems and rethinking protocols to reach outside former norms and find people who want to work.

“There’s nothing that shouldn’t be considered,” said Phil Eatherton, HR manager at AFS Corporate Member Waupaca Foundry, which has successfully recruited dozens of employees through an innovative program for convicted drug offenders in Marinette County, Wisconsin. “Some will say, ‘I don’t know how we can do that. We’re not cut out for that.’ Well, you need to figure out how you can be cut out for it, because you’ve got to be flexible with people. You’ve got to think of something new where people say, ‘That’s a cool perk.’ You’ve got to make things attractive, and nothing should be off the table.

“If you’re not adapting or being flexible to consider some out-of-thebox suggestions,” he added, “you’re going to be left behind.”

About eight years ago, Eatherton stepped forward to give people in a new treatment drug court a second chance by giving them what they needed most: a job. And, at the same time, he gave his company what it needed most: workers. He has since hired so many that he stopped counting, and while some didn’t work out, most have proven to be hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and talented.

It started when a proactive Wisconsin judge, Jim Morrison, developed the program after hearing the desperate workforce woes from the local chamber of commerce, of which Eatherton was a member.

“He explained to us these are high-risk, high-need individuals who are one step from going to prison, and in fact, this is an alternative to going to prison for their drug offenses,” said Eatherton. “Judge Morrison came to [the chamber of commerce] and said, ‘I listened to you two years ago; you needed some help as a community. This is what we believe is going to help people. But now I need some help from you, as employers in the area. Some of the participants are at the stage right now where they need jobs. So I’m asking you if you can take a chance on some of these people and hire them and give them paying jobs, so they are taxpaying citizens of the county.’ I went up to him after that meeting, I gave him my business card, and I said, ‘I’m in.’”

Almost immediately, Waupaca Foundry was interviewing applicants from the program, and a steady stream of eager, willing candidates continues today. Many meet Eatherton personally in the courtroom, where he has made regular, monthly appearances since 2014, offering words of encouragement to those who are striving to turn their lives around.

They are sober, Morrison said, a fact he verifies through random drug-testing multiple times per week; they are in treatment and have a sponsor; and they are required to appear in Judge Morrison’s court every week.

“These can easily become your very best employees,” Morrison told an audience of AFS HR leaders this spring. “They’re smart and they’re highly motivated. They are now addicted to work in many cases. There are many, many potential employees out there who will improve your workforce tremendously—if you give them a chance.”

One young man was top of mind as Eatherton considered examples of successful second-chance recruits at Waupaca Foundry. A solid employee from Day 1, he and his natural abilities were recognized by the company, which invested in him to receive electrical training at a nearby technical college. He went on to become a highly-skilled electrician at the foundry.

Some 350 miles south of Waupaca, Wisconsin, in Central Illinois, AFS Corporate Member Decatur Foundry Inc. (DFI) has made a bold change to its hiring protocols and, in doing so, unlocked a floodgate of applicants who are being trained and welcomed into a caring culture at the family owned foundry that employs about 120—and remarkably experiences no worker shortfalls, despite competing for employees head to head with Caterpillar and nutrition giant ADM. 

That one powerful tweak was the removal of a longstanding policy to run background checks on all employees.

“We realized we were really hurting ourselves by not giving people a chance,” said Vice President of Human Resources Todd Ray. “We were using the background check to screen people out, and boy, if you had something, typically you wouldn’t even get an interview. And that wasn’t the right approach, morally, for DFI. So we wiped that requirement out. We still typically do background checks now for our management and a couple other positions such as accounting, but, for the most part, we relaxed those policies, and it’s really helped us to find the right people.

DFI didn’t keep it a secret. Ray notified various nonprofits throughout Decatur and generally got word out to the community that the foundry was no longer requiring a background check— consequently, he routinely receives referrals and forwarded applications. 

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “We’re giving them a fresh start, and hopefully they’re taking the job for the right reasons, to take care of their families. Nine times out of 10, we’ve found that those individuals are just as productive and just as loyal. They work hard, because they know we gave them a second chance.

“Some people are on parole or probation, and they’ve got to check with their officers or once in a while they’ve got court hearings they have to go to. But you know what? Give me a hard worker who has to go once a month and check in with his or her probation officer and come right back to work, and I’ll take that any day.”

Ray uses values-based questioning during the interview to establish a candidate’s long-term goals and motivation for wanting a job at DFI. The company conducts interviews as a team of two, who collaborate and compare impressions and information shared by the applicant. Together, they query how the individual handles stress and conflict, how well they work with others and take direction, and what they’re really looking for. Is it just a paycheck to buy a new car, or are they drawn to the positive culture at DFI as they seek to make a new start?

While background checks are out, drug testing is still in, and the company tests everyone for cocaine and a few other drugs, except marijuana, prior to offering a job.

Once a hire is made, DFI is intentional about caring for new employees and making them part of the company family. Immediately, new hires have access to the Employee Assistance Program, which includes mental health counseling. A benefits package that includes 401(k), premium health, dental and vision, as well as life insurance, sweetens the pie, while in-depth training with AFS educational resources plus continuous communication with their supervisor help cement the employee’s confidence and assurance that (s)he’s recognized and valued. In some situations, and with defined parameters, DFI even goes so far as to extend financial loans to employees.

Ray has another secret weapon that enables him to keep his company fully staffed. Because DFI has built a reputation for demonstrating care of its team, the average employee tenure is over 10 years with the foundry. With this bedrock foundation of loyalty, DFI enjoys an employee referral system that continuously feeds Ray’s office with a flow of folks ready to sign on.

“Rather than putting money into a newspaper ad, we’ve basically put it back into our employees and said, ‘Hey, you go to find me somebody that you think would work well here, knowing us and knowing what we’re trying to do, and then we’ll reward you for that,’” said Ray. “About 80% of our applications come through the employee referral program.”

When the company hires someone referred by an employee, the employee gets a finder’s fee, and as the new hire passes 90-day and six-month mile-stones, the referring employee continues to receive additional monetary rewards. “It’s to the point now that even new hires, within a couple of weeks, are coming back and saying, ‘Can I refer somebody? I really want my neighbor or my friend to work here.’ It’s fantastic.”

One short-term solution HR managers are using to fill vacancies in the manufacturing sector is the practice of hiring foreign workers. “There’s just not enough people actively looking for jobs in today’s current labor market—that’s the math,” said Joey Leonard, an HR consultant and recruiter with Kerber Rose, an executive search fi rm. “We’re all fighting over the same people and trying to get the same people to work for us. If you’re focused on the short term, I know some companies are bringing people in from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Guatemala, for example. I know of one company’s staffing service that actually bought a local motel to house their workers in.”

Housing, language barriers, and childcare are among the considerations that require creativity and financial investment, but hiring internationals into the foundry is certainly a means to fill large labor gaps created by the retiring Baby Boomer generation and the scarcity of young workers seeking metalcasting jobs. Numerous agencies work with U.S. companies to recruit workers from around the world, assisting with the work visa process and government certifications. Th e U.S. Department of Labor publishes a list of foreign labor recruiters that employers have engaged or plan to engage in the recruitment of prospective H-2B (non-agricultural workers)—the 2022 list is available at:

According to the DOL, “Foreign labor certification programs permit U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary or permanent basis to fi ll jobs essential to the U.S. economy. Certification may be obtained in cases where it can be demonstrated that there are insufficient qualified U.S. workers available and willing to perform the work at wages that meet or exceed the prevailing wage paid for that occupation in the area of intended employment.” Information about certifications is available at:

One substantial demographic that’s more than eligible for U.S. foundry employment—and doesn’t require certifications from the DOL—is women, and foundries have become more intentional about recruiting females into the metalcasting workforce, even in the same plant-floor positions traditionally held by men. Automation has leveled the playing field, according to Eatherton at Waupaca Foundry, and at his company, women don’t do any different work than men.

“We have a pre-employment function test,” he said, “and the same percentage of females pass it as males, so I don’t see an issue with physical limitations. If anything, once they get in the door, I have found our female employees actually have a better attention to detail. They ask better questions aimed at improving processes.”

In accordance with its affirmative action plan, Waupaca Foundry actively recruits women in the community, and part of that outreach occurs at job fairs and visits to technical colleges where they present their own customized “foundry in a box” demonstrations. Th e company is intentional about bringing female shop-floor employees to these events—their presence alongside male counterparts gets the message across that women are welcome in metalcasting careers.

But as with the foreign worker scenario, a key area employers must begin solving is childcare.

According to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Businesses and policymakers are paying close attention to our nation’s childcare situation because a robust childcare system supports a healthy workforce and economy. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scarcity and high cost of childcare has become even worse and is a notable factor in the ongoing worker shortage crisis as childcare breakdowns are preventing parents from returning to work.

“...According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study, 58% of working parents reported leaving work because they were unable to fi nd childcare solutions that met their needs. Furthermore, 32% of women cited the need to be home to care for family members as a barrier to returning to work.” (https://www.uschamber. com/workforce/understanding-americas-labor-shortage-the-scarce-andcostly-childcare-issue.)

In some rare acts of ingenuity, foundries have begun partnering with other local businesses that run multiple shifts to create their own childcare facilities— merely offering childcare subsidies for employees doesn’t go far enough if the underlying problem is actually finding care for children between the hours of 2 and 10 p.m.

The old adage about desperate times calling for desperate measures is suddenly not sounding so oldschool in the present labor environment where HR pros are actively seeking new ideas and resources. Some of the ideas are contrary to every principle that’s been in the hiring rule book for decades, but if even one new strategy makes the difference between hiring some people versus hiring no people, the rule book might have to be laid aside if not tossed entirely

For example, depending on the foundry’s location, would your company be willing to partner with a business that employs seasonal and/or transient workers—perhaps, Leonard said, these workers could join the foundry roster for five or six months out of the year. Again, are some people better than none?

Flexible scheduling is also cropping up as a compromise companies are utilizing to attract employees, from creating part-time positions to literally allowing candidates to name their hours.

Financial creativity is finding its way into the HR toolbox, with some U.S. companies offering to pay employees’ college debt... and since that doesn’t apply to many shopfloor prospects, how about paying off their kids’ college debt? Another consideration: Leonard cited examples of companies offering $5,000 bonuses to enable employees to buy a house.

The secret, it seems, is identifying the right perk that has real meaning and value to people today. And if you need clues, don’t neglect one of your best sources: the employees that are quitting. Ask them why and listen to them carefully, said Eatherton—rather than treat their feedback dismissively, learn from them. They may be leaving because you didn’t provide something; maybe others aren’t coming in for the same reason.

Leonard also emphasized the longterm importance of carefully defining, building, and protecting the foundry’s brand in the community and among its stakeholders, including municipal boards, schools, charities, sports and other clubs, and more. Find out what the community’s perception is about your business.

He recommends simplifying job descriptions to widen the net for applicants, and rather than demanding experience, it may be more beneficial to hire for character and personality fit—and train for the rest.

Meanwhile, as the foundry mindset is fixed on bringing more folks in the front door, someone better mind the back door and make sure you’re keeping the people you’ve got happy.

“The most powerful thing you can do is focus on the people you have right now—you’ve spent so much time and resources to get the people you have working for you and doing a good job for you,” said Leonard. “If 90% of your time is focused on finding the next 10 people and you forget about taking care of the ones you have, you stand a chance to lose them.

“I’d rather keep everybody I have than go out and try to find 10 more and lose two of my good people because I haven’t focused on them. If you’re not talking about retention in the same breath as you’re talking about attraction, you are missing the boat.”

Click here to view the article in the September 2022 digital edition of Modern Casting.