One local employer’s solution to foster a specialized workforce to meet its growing customer demand
Story by Lee Marie Reinsch
What do you do if you’ve got a job requiring such a specialized skill that there’s no one in your area who’s got it?
Answer: You create your own workforce.
Neenah-based Plexus Corp. did exactly that, with the help of Fox Valley Technical College, the state Department of Workforce Development, the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board, Kelly Services, and a Fast Forward grant from the state.
No, they didn’t build robots.
Rather, they did things the old-fashioned way: They set up a formal training program to teach 70 actual humans how to do the specialized circuit-board soldering conducted at Plexus’s manufacturing facilities in Neenah and Appleton.
Kelly Services found the prospective workers for Plexus. Fox Valley Tech served as the educational partner, developing a certificate program, holding classes and providing the instructor and facilities. The college received a soldering laboratory out of the deal, with equipment and workstations provided by Plexus, and 70 recruits earned certifications and offers for fulltime employment. Plexus also provided instructor training.
Fox Valley Workforce Development Board helped Plexus apply for the Wisconsin Fast Forward grant, garnering $173,000 that went toward instruction, according to Steve Straub, dean of manufacturing for Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton. He said the college and Plexus were required to match part of the grant, which they did in the form of equipment, facilities and other softer costs.
What is Plexus, anyway?
Plexus Corp. is categorized as an electronics manufacturing company, but there’s a wee bit more to it than that.
“We’re a services company,” said Plexus Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Todd Kelsey.
“We design and manufacture our customers’ projects.”
Its main market sectors include:
• Networking and communication;
• Healthcare and life sciences;
• Industrial and commercial; and
• Defense, security and aerospace.
Some of its key customers include GE Healthcare, Coca-Cola and Honeywell’s aerospace division.
For Coca-Cola, Plexus makes those mindboggling touch-screen beverage machines that offer 100-plus flavor combinations found at places like Noodles & Company, Burger King or Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Plexus manufactures the entire unit here in the Fox Valley and ships them around the world, Kelsey said.
For GE Healthcare, Plexus builds ultrasound units.
But by far, aerospace is its most thriving sector, Kelsey said. He credits an increase in air travel in recent years. According to the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, international nonstop air travel to and from the United States increased 7 percent in 2014 over the previous year, for a total of 197.3 million people traveling to and from the country.
“Ultimately the bulk of the components that we build end up in either a Boeing or an Airbus airplane, and they have a very strong order pattern right now so their backlogs go out about a decade,” Kelsey said. “So it’s a really strong demand.”
Plexus employs more than 12,000 people worldwide in its 26 facilities around the globe, with four sites in the Fox Valley, including the world headquarters in downtown Neenah.
The company has grown its labor force in Wisconsin by 16 percent in the last five years, Kelsey said. Globally, it’s grown even more substantially.
Kelsey credits the company’s high performance rather than the economy.
“We have a very focused strategy. We focus on mid- to low-volume, high-complexity (products), so our organization is very well aligned around that strategy and the markets that fit within that strategy,” he said. “The other key differentiator for Plexus is our drive toward operational excellence and customer service excellence.”
Kelsey defines operational excellence as “exceptional quality on time at a fair price” and customer service excellence as “building upon that, but viewing problems from the eyes of our customer.”
Those two factors have helped Plexus gain new customers while expanding business with current ones, he said.
Crafting an aerospace ‘center of excellence’
The word “plexus” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “an interlacing network, especially of blood vessels or nerves.” It’s pretty apropos, once one begins to understand the nitty-gritty of what Plexus does.
Plexus’s less than 2-year-old, 475,000-sq. ft. operations site in Neenah’s Southpark Industrial Center is the company’s largest North American facility. It’s also a targeted growth location for the Americas, specifically for customers in the defense, security and aerospace sectors, according to Laura Biehn, director of human resources for Plexus.
“The Neenah Operations manufacturing center is looked upon as an aerospace center of excellence,” she said. “As such, a lot of the products that go into our DSA (defense, security and aerospace) customers require a very specific skill called hand soldering. If you can imagine taking very, very tiny components and hand soldering them onto a circuit board, that’s really what this skill is.”
In addition to beverage machines, these circuit boards go into products such as braking systems and black boxes on airplanes, items that demand a critical attention to detail.
“Since in (northeast Wisconsin), we don’t have a ton of other companies that do this kind of work, we had a demand to be really creative and create this workforce on our own,” Biehn said.
Kelsey said it’s important to note such intricate soldering is an uncommon ability.
“It takes some real craftsmanship to build these aerospace products,” he said. “The way that they’re manufactured is very complex. It’s a rare skill set in general and it’s particularly rare in this area.”
In fact, so rare is the skill that until they trained enough new employees, Plexus had to import workers from its sister site in Boise, Idaho.
The past few years have been good ones for Plexus, and when the company determined it needed to hire around 70 people to hand solder circuit boards, it talked to the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board, which represents a six-county area around Lake Winnebago.
Such soldering skills just weren’t available here in the Fox Valley, said Paul Stelter, CEO of the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board.
“They were looking to keep the work here, so they had been talking to us and also with FVTC about what might be done to alleviate that,” Stelter said. “We realized this may be an opportunity to provide the training funds to get people trained to fulfill these needs.”
Paying for the training
So what is Fast Forward?
Wisconsin Act 9, passed in spring 2013, earmarked $15 million in state funds over the following two years for Fast Forward grants to address the state’s need for skilled workers through worker training grants and investments to prepare workers for current and future jobs. Administered by the state Department of Workforce Development’s Office of Skills Development, Fast Forward awarded a variety of grants in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, small business, transportation, information technologies, customer service, financial services, healthcare and agriculture.
Businesses can make suggestions for grant programs and make skills development inquiries on the program’s website, wisconsinfastforward.com. That’s where more information can be found about current and upcoming grant application information and deadlines.
“We work with WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.), the technical college system and the Office of Economic Advisors, which is the labor market analysts and the research technicians for the state, so we can identify what the local economy requirements are for the workforce and what specific skill gaps might exist in the local area,” said Scott Jansen, division administrator for employment and training for the state Department of Workforce Development.
DWD works with local economic development agencies, chambers of commerce and other partners to determine skills-training needs of a region.
“If someone comes forward to apply for a grant, we first of all confirm that there’s intent to hire by the employers that are sponsoring the grant, as well as can we see there’s a need available because there’s not enough skilled workers in that particular craft to meet what the demand is for employers,” Jansen said.
Fusing together an alliance
Fox Valley Tech repurposed a computer lab into the boot-camp soldering lab. In all, the lab consists of 10 workstations with soldering equipment and compressed air. Seven groups of 10 students each went through an intensive four-week boot camp in late 2014 and early 2015, finishing up the program with an industry-recognized certification as well as a certificate conferred from Fox Valley Tech.
The program is completed as far as delivering the training outlined in the Fast Forward grant application. And while Plexus is “continually hiring” at its locations in Appleton and Neenah, according to Biehn, there aren’t any immediate plans to bootcamp more of these detailed-solder workers.
“We’re hiring for all kinds of skill sets, not just this skill set,” Biehn said. “This is just a really unique opportunity for us to get some folks who were here onsite through our Kelly services temp agency. We went through a very highly selective process, along with letters of referral, and the outcome of that was they got to go through this training, and upon the successful completion of the training became fulltime Plexus employees.”
Plexus offered fulltime positions to all 70 students, but not all accepted. Biehn said they retained 85 percent of the students, or approximately 60. The others found employment elsewhere, according to Straub.
Biehn declined to disclose the salaries of the new employees but said Plexus’s starting pay for entry-level production work lies between $11 and $12.50 per hour plus benefits.
Plexus isn’t terminating the connection with Fox Valley Tech.
“We would hope to continue that partnership for sure, but we’re still going through some logistics of what that looks like,” Biehn said.
Plexus used Fox Valley Tech this summer for some recertification and has had ongoing discussions with the college to reinforce that partnership, Biehn said. The lab equipment stays on the Fox Valley Tech campus as part of its fixtures.
Biehn said she’s gotten lots of positive feedback on the training program.
“It was a great opportunity to create a lab there for these 70 trainees to go through and get some hands-on experience,” she said.
Straub said the partnership shows the Fox Valley is more than cheese and paper.
“One of the things this demonstrates is the diverse manufacturing base we have here in the Fox Valley district,” Straub said. “That includes high-tech electronics companies like Plexus, as well as traditional heavy metal companies, forging, food production like cheese making, papermaking. We make fire trucks. We make welding machines that welders use. Gulf Stream makes private jet aircrafts.”
We could add that the Fox Valley also makes skilled employees.
Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.