Amerequip works to develop workforce

When you are a growing manufacturer, but based in a small town, it can be challenging to find the highly skilled workforce you need to continue to be competitive.

But it's a challenge that Amerequip - a designer and manufacturer of custom equipment for the lawn, landscape, agricultural and construction markets - has tackled with great success.

"Everyone has heard about the skills gap shortage for manufacturers," said Mike Vander Zanden, president/CEO of Amerequip, which has plants in Kiel and New Holstein.  "That's why we had to get creative on how to alleviate that skills gap, so we could find the workers we need as we continue to expand."

Amerequip has experienced rapid growth in the past two years, with sales increasing 53 percent, the workforce growing to 215 associates and the investment of $11.75 million in capital expenditures, including facility and equipment upgrades and technology.

"We've gone direct to the best sources for new workers - local high schools, technical colleges and universities," Vander Zanden said.  "Part of the challenge in finding workers that want to have a career in manufacturing is like, perceptions that might have been reality years ago but are no longer true.  Most people haven't seen how manufacturing has changed.  We like to get students, their parents and teachers into our facilities and show them how, clean, modern and technology-based our work really is.  It turns out to be an eye opening experience for many and it gets them thinking about a career in manufacturing."

Tours are just the start.  Amerequip has youth apprenticeship students, co-op students, boot camp students and interns on site.  Plus it stresses continuing education for current workers.  "You can't rely on a single program or initiative to find the workers you need," Vander Zanden said.  "You can't wait for them to come to you.  You have to go out and find them or develop them."

Among Amerequip's offerings are these programs:

  • Youth Apprenticeships.  Amerequip will have 14 paid Youth Apprentices (YA) this year.  Candidates are selected through a cooperative effort with Lakeshore Technical College as well as Howards Grove, Elkhart Lake-Glenbulah, Kiel and New Holstein high schools.  The YA positions are being offered in assembly, fabrication, welding, CNC machining, quality assurance and manufacturing engineering.  "Each student has to complete 450 hours in the program; working more in the summer and then through the school year until they graduate," said April Wagner, Amerequip's HR manager.  Over the past three years, Amerequip hired five of these students upon completion of the program.
  • Co-op Students.  Working with the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and UW-Stout, Amerequip has six co-op students who work for six months each year in design engineering or manufacturing engineering
  • Boot Camp.  This program, offered through Moraine Park Technical College, uses a Wisconsin Covenant Grant to train people.  "It is geared toward those interested in working in manufacturing but have no experience," Wagner said.  Adult students go through a 16-week Boot Camp to learn CNC Machining or welding and Amerequip provides a 72-hour internship, which equates to one day a week for nine weeks.  "We've had great success in hiring the Boot Camp students after they finish their training," she added.
  • Tuition Reimbursement.  Working with Lakeshore Technical College, Amerequip will hire part-time workers who are going to school at Lakeshore Tech and then offer tuition reimbursement, up to $6,000 annually, in exchange for staying with the company for 24 months.  "This is an attractive option to many students who want to work while they are in school, and come out with a full-time job and little to no debt," Wagner said.

In addition to the outreach programs, Amerequip awards numerous scholarships to area students and offers internship opportunities.  Plus, once people start working at the company, they quickly realize continuous learning is a part of their employment.  "In fact, in one of the recent facility expansions, we added a training center for employees so they could stay on site and take classes and seminars that enhance their skills," Wagner said.

But the workforce development effort does not end there.  Company leaders and associates are actively involved in the community.  "You never know where your next employee will come from and you want to make sure the local community knows who you are and views you as a great place to work," Vander Zanden said.  "We get involved in the classroom, with nonprofits and with community fundraisers."

Vander Zanden summed it up by saying, "When you add it all up, that's why we've been successful in attracting new, skilled workers.  It's a combination of reaching out to schools, reaching out to the community and making sure our associates share a passion for continuous learning.  It does take a major commitment, but it's paying off or our employees, the community and our company."