GAYS MILLS - Last week, we reviewed the efforts of the North Crawford School District to find and retain qualified staff in an increasingly competitive employment market in the first of a three-part series on local jobs and hiring. In this edition, we’ll look at employment challenges of one of the largest local manufacturers.
Right down Highway 131 from the North Crawford School, alumni Ritchie Stevenson and his wife Vickie own and operate BAPI (Building Automation Products Incorporated), a company that manufactures sensors for the HVAC industry.
The Stevensons began their startup company in Cross Plains in 1993 and grew to about 50 employees. In 2000, they relocated to Gays Mills because it was a convenient place to expand the growing company and both had roots in the area.
Recently, the company expanded its factory space in the Applewood Business Park. BAPI has grown to employ about 125 people in 2017.
Although it would seem a challenge to find 125 people with the technical skills to work at BAPI, Ritchie Stevenson feels “pretty fortunate” so far in being able to find qualified talent in the area. However, the local business owner acknowledged that the higher numbers needed now “argue that it will be harder to achieve the same kind of success in the future.”
Stevenson believes that one advantage BAPI enjoys is the local technical schools are turning out lots of students with the tech background the company needs. He also believes the presence of similar businesses in the area creates options for the employees and a certain synergy for the area.
Like the school district, Stevenson is dedicating more effort to finding and retaining qualified employees. He said BAPI is learning better how to recruit the talented employees they need.
Recruiting can depend on the position, according to the local business owner. At the management level especially, it’s important to understand if the applicants like the rural environment.
“Do they like fishing, hunting and open spaces? You need to ask those questions not just the technical questions,” Stevenson explained. “Are they looking for less city? It’s about stickiness. Will they stick in an area?”
Stevenson indicated that he had learned some things from Organic Valley about how to approach recruiting.
“It’s not just the job function. It’s not just the skills needed,” Stevenson said about the hiring process. “You’re hiring the person.”
Finding the right employee might mean you need good quality housing, according to Stevenson. It’s about getting talented people to want to live here.
“Finding a place that’s good can be hard around here,” Stevenson said. “The state knows this. Millennials are looking for something different. They’re not necessarily looking for old two-story houses.”
BAPI’s workforce is pretty diverse it seems.
“We have everybody,” Stevenson said. “Our engineering manager is from Cedar Rapids. He was looking for a smaller community. We have retired people, kids in high school and kids in tech school. It’s the whole spectrum-it’s diverse. We try to keep that mix.”
Although BAPI’s manufacturing day runs from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. the schedule accommodates the employees. High school students get work release and start when they can.
“We take them when they’re available,” Stevenson said.
College students sometimes work two days out of the week, when school is in session.
Stevenson used the term “pipelining” to describe BAPI’s relationship with students.
“Pipelining sort of let’s them test drive us, while we are test-driving them,” he said. “After that period ends, we can bring them on.”
Last summer, there were 10 interns ‘pipelining’ at BAPI. The students come through their universities and/or send resumes.
“Kids nowadays are way more savvy,” Stevenson noted. “They look us up through the computer.”
Although the electronic and technical skills are still a major part of what many BAPI employees utilize, the company has grown and now has all the major departments of most operations-that includes accounting, engineering, research and development, sales, marketing and purchasing.
BAPI will often make an offer to students before they graduate to “lock them up,” according to Stevenson.
Sometimes, BAPI is paying for the schooling of its employees. Recruiting means being actively engaged with schools, according to BAPI’s owner.
Although Stevenson remembered being interviewed by companies while he attended SWTC, he said that it wasn’t the same.
“It wasn’t quite so aggressive then, there wasn’t a lot of paying for education then,” Stevenson recalled. “Now, there’s paying for ongoing education, so you can lock them up for three to five years.”
Stevenson described the BAPI employees as “very loyal” people who take “great pride” in their work.
“We like to keep it realistic in the workplace,” Stevenson said. “So, the employees are involved right out of the gate. They’re part of the team doing worthwhile relevant projects.”
BAPI’s biggest employment challenge seems to be filling the higher-level degreed jobs, according to Stevenson.
“They (the higher-level employees) seem to be more location-based,” Stevenson said. “They tend to live in cities more so than not. Our recruiting strategies are not as strong in those areas, although we do have employees spread out all over the country.”
The steady growth would seem to point to the fact that BAPI is doing something right, when it comes to hiring their employees. After talking to Ritchie Stevenson, it also seems they are changing to meet the future challenges.