WELCOME, N.C. — Doing more with less has been a driving factor in the latest upswing for Atrium Windows and Doors Inc., the largest private employer in Davidson County at more than 1,100 workers, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Sales volume is up about 30 percent since the depths of the recession in 2009-10, with the expansion of new home construction nationwide pushing Atrium back closer to a 50-50 production mix with replacement items.
That’s even though the company has shrunk from 14 plants nationwide in 2005 to seven in 2014, and its local workforce had dropped from 1,400 in 2005 to 900 as recently as late 2013. The recent sales rebound led Atrium to hire 200 employees since December.
Lean manufacturing practices permeate the Welcome plant’s 10 production lines, which run from one end of the 400,000-square-foot plant to the other. Each line requires a shift of about 30 workers.
With Atrium currently in the heart of its busiest production months, most lines are running around the clock to enable the company to meet a one-week goal from order to shipment. Atrium also recently gained a major private-label inventory order from a large customer.
Yet, as Doug Cross, the plant’s recently returned general manager, demonstrated during a plant tour last week, there are limits to how far manufacturers can stretch resources and staffing, and still reach their growth potential.
That’s why the company is preparing to hold an on-site job fair from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday in hopes of attracting, if not hiring, candidates for about 100 job vacancies. The company is based at 300 Welcome Center Blvd. off U.S. 52.
“There is no question we’re doing better, but we’re not having people knocking down our doors to fill our jobs,” Cross said.
“The job openings run from entry level and assemblers to management and supervisors, and for all our shifts. There are unskilled, semi-skilled and highly skilled positions, though more on the skilled end with the new technology we are introducing.”
Cross said the average hourly production employee is working about three to four overtime hours a week.
“While we have plenty of employees willing to work the overtime, this would be a way for us to control our overtime costs through bringing new employees on board,” he said.
Scott St. Clair, Atrium’s president since December, said the Welcome plant is one of the company’s “benchmark facilities.”
“It is setting the production standard for the company for the direction we’re on, and that bodes well for our North Carolina business as well.”
Wanted: Skilled workers
Cross said he’s fully aware the Triad job market remains challenging for many people even as the jobless rate has dropped to 6.5 percent in May from a recession high of 12.3 percent in February 2010.
Yet, he knows he’s not alone among Triad manufacturers in struggling to find qualified candidates, particularly to handle advanced manufacturing equipment.
The list of large Triad manufacturers facing hiring challenges include the likes of B/E Aerospace Inc., Caterpillar Inc., Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corp., Gildan Activewear Inc., Herbalife Ltd., Honda Aircraft Co., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Siemens, Timco Aviation Systems Inc., Unifi Inc. and United Furniture Industries.
Many of those companies have run large classified display ads in the Winston-Salem Journal and other Triad publications posting multiple job openings. In many instances, they are chasing after the same limited pool of qualified applications for their advanced manufacturing jobs.
The competition has led many of them to raise their hourly pay to provide compensation packages ranging from $35,000 to $70,000 and above.
Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University, said there are two major factors in the state’s job market.
“We still have a big problem – as does the nation –in folks dropping out of the labor force,” Walden said.
He said about half of the decline is due to younger individuals staying in school longer and older workers retiring.
“This leaves half from presumably individuals wanting a job but who have stopped looking,” Walden said. ‘The likely reason is a skills mismatch – jobless workers not having the skills needed by the labor market.”
Gary Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College, addressed the issue in a February op-ed piece in the Journal.
“People are shocked to learn how high tech today’s manufacturing is … being driven by science and technology,” Green wrote.
“It is creating a need for a new generation of skilled workers who are trained in computer-controlled processes, networking, automation and 3-D printing, and who may work in clean rooms as spotless as a research lab.”
“Unfortunately, the general public clings to the image of factories as dirty, dark and dismal places, peopled with underpaid workers in grimy overalls standing in assembly lines.”
Green said the question of “How do we change this misperception is a topic that’s being addressed at local, national and international levels.”
Quick turnaround for production
One major factor buoying the window-and-door industry is the high level of customization.
This business model is predicated on making a specialized product only when an order is placed, thereby eliminating the need for excess inventory, which is expensive to store.
The catch is that the consumer must value the manufacturer’s dependable supply and quick production and delivery turnaround of a higher-priced customized item over a lower-cost import.
Another key factor for Atrium is that most of the window-and-door products are made at its Davidson plants instead of being imported as component parts. “We make everything but the glass, and then we cut and fabricate the glass into the panels,” Cross said.
The tour of Atrium’s main production plant revealed a very diverse workforce in terms of gender, race and age, although leaning more toward ages 30 and up.
When asked how well Atrium is reaching the 18- to 25-age group with its hiring opportunities, Cross said it has been difficult in part because of the public perception of the viability and sustainability of manufacturing jobs.
A disillusioned perspective is understandable given that the Triad has lost tens of thousands of furniture, textile and tobacco production jobs over the past 20 years.
“There is a perception that there aren’t enough good jobs in manufacturing still around,” Cross said. “We’re proof that they are good manufacturing jobs, but these require more skill than those 15-20 years ago.
“Some people are just not comfortable with the whole retraining, developing new skills aspects of advanced manufacturing.”
April Allen has been with Atrium for more than 19 years, primarily as a production line supervisor.
“It’s a clean, safe environment with good pay and benefits,” Allen said. “People who give it 100 percent every day do well here.”
Jerry Heath, another supervisor with 28 years with the company, said its ebbs and flows make him appreciate his job and officials’ willingness to promote him through the ranks since he was first hired at age 18.
“I remember stepping into one meeting in 1987 when the head boss was telling employees ‘just keep us afloat, I don’t care about profits,’ ” Heath said.
“We’ve come a long ways from those days, but the same work ethic that got us out of that bind continues to drive us forward today.”
Official: Create pipeline for jobs
During the tour, Cross points out an example of Atrium’s recent technology investments is the Drexel forklift, which moves product from the right side of the equipment rather than from the front. The forklift enables companies to have tighter aisles for inventory stocking.
Cross said Atrium typically operates four of the Drexel forklifts per shift, but could benefit from more constant use of them … if they had more qualified drivers.
The company recently qualified for a three-year N.C. Commerce Department workplace training grant of $203,000 – to be managed by Davidson County Community College – for Drexel forklifts. The training takes two months to complete.
“It shows state officials are aware of the hiring needs of manufacturers and are putting money into investing in helping existing business expand, where much of the overall job growth tends to come from anyway,” Cross said.
Steve Googe, president of Davidson Economic Development Commission, said he’s pleased to see what he calls “the flagship manufacturer in the county” doing well enough to need additional workers.
He is concerned, however, that too often economic and educational officials, both state and local, tend to be more reactionary than proactive in helping manufacturers meet their hiring needs.
“We too often wait for until a company says we need 10 employees to do this, and then we find the means to go out and train them,” Googe said. “We need to be in constant contact with employers to anticipate their production, and thus their hiring needs.
“We can’t just depend on the community colleges to react – as well as they are doing that. We have to put together a pipeline training system so that we’re constantly turning out qualified candidates for hire as the companies need them.”