Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Nonprofits

Manufacturer invests in talent pipeline

Primera Plastics reaches out to at-risk youth for training and mentorship.

August 21, 2015
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A West Michigan manufacturing company is creating its own talent pipeline by reaching out to at-risk high school students in Ottawa County and offering them a job and a ride to work.

Through the Pathways program at Primera Plastics, high school students have the opportunity to earn $10 an hour while receiving on-the-job training and personal development mentorship.

“Two years ago I decided to slow down the organization and be strategic with growth and invest in the training of young adults,” said Noel Cuellar, president and founder of Primera Plastics.

Primera Plastics is a Zeeland-based manufacturer of plastic components for the automotive and office furniture industries. The company operates 30 presses, does $25 million a year in sales and employs 135 workers.

Cuellar said his decision came after he saw the manufacturing industry’s talent pipeline drying up.

Skilled trades, once a beacon of hope for many in Michigan, weren’t getting the same respect they previously had earned from educators and others, who instead were encouraging students to pursue a four-year degree if they hoped to get ahead as adults.

Cuellar said he knew there were kids out there who weren’t ready for college and wouldn’t be successful on that path right out of high school, but who could be successful in the skilled trades and take advantage of the plethora of manufacturing jobs still available in the state, so he set out to reach them.

Two years later, Cuellar has invested $200,000 thus far in helping young people gain the skills they need to be successful in manufacturing and beyond. He’s done this not only through the Pathways program, but also through summer school tuition grants for students who have fallen behind, speaking to local high school classes and alternative education students about manufacturing careers and personal development, providing manufacturing tours and offering tuition reimbursement opportunities.

The Pathways program is the most hands-on opportunity Cuellar has created to help young people.

He said one of the keys to the Pathways program’s success is that, beyond teaching students how to perform the job functions required at his company, students also have the opportunity to begin learning financial intelligence.

Cuellar works with the company’s bank to provide a personal finance class to the students on all three shifts, as well as one-on-one sessions with a bank representative to discuss their goals and learn about the savings they will need to achieve those goals.

One of Cuellar’s goals for the students is to help them purchase their first used car.

“We have a bus that we use to transport the young kids,” he said. “They don’t have cars or a way to get to work, so we pick them up for all three shifts and take them home.

“They can ride the bus for free for one year. In one year, based on the financial intelligence — and, as you are adding value through the training, your compensation increases — in a year, the people on the bus should have at least $5,000 in the bank, which will allow them to buy a good used car.”

Cuellar said with a car, students are able to access even more opportunities to build their value — often on the company’s dime. They can opt to take classes at Grand Rapids Community College or another college in the area, enroll in a trades program, or even attend a conference or some other learning opportunity.

The financial intelligence class has been successful, and this September, Cuellar said he will introduce a mandatory “mathematics for manufacturing” class for the entire company.

“We noticed that math, as a whole, people are lacking some of those skills within manufacturing organizations, so this September we are starting mandatory mathematics classes for everyone — whether it’s the Pathways kids or someone who has been here for 17 years,” Cuellar said.

In addition to the classes, Pathways students receive extra mentoring on things such as how to communicate, professional appearance, what employers expect in terms of showing up on time and what’s expected when they decide to leave a job.

“We make them tuck their shirts in, look people in the eye, learn to ask if you don’t know something,” Cuellar said. “We are trying to get them to come out of their shells and give them that self-esteem and confidence. We are seeing that.

“When they graduate, if they decide not to stay with us, at least when they go out they will have some tools in their toolbox to fall back on and give them a chance to succeed.”

In April, Cuellar said his company began a pilot program with three high school sophomores centered on problem solving. The students were asked to work three hours per day, five days a week, at $10 an hour. During the summer months, Cuellar allowed the students to choose the three-hour block of time they would work so they could still enjoy their summer.

“We gave them a challenge,” he said. “We had one particular part that we needed 5,000 pieces a day and we were doing it in line with our presses, and we couldn’t keep up with it.”

Cuellar said he gave the students the directions currently being used to produce the part as well as access to a quality engineer, production engineer and product engineer at the company for any questions they had.

“For four days they were trying to produce 5,000 pieces per day, and they couldn’t,” he said. “They kept coming very short because they were following the instructions we gave them. Then they came to us and said, ‘Can we change how you are doing this?’ and the answer was yes.”

Cuellar said the students not only met the 5,000 parts per day requirement but also were a week ahead of schedule.

He said he is particularly anxious for school to start back up to see how well the kids perform now that they’ve been employed at his company for five months.

“We will be following them and talking to their counselors in their schools to see how they’ve evolved from last year to this year,” Cuellar said.

Cuellar said he is trying to teach the students who come through his company’s doors to invest in themselves and grow their own value.

“What we are trying to create here in our organization is to have everybody understand you get paid by value, not by the hour,” he said.

He said he also tries to teach young people it’s not what they have but what they’ve done.

“It’s what you accomplish that nobody can take away from you, which is your work ethic and the value that you add to your family, your workplace and to yourself — that is the message we are trying to demonstrate to the young individuals.”

Cuellar acknowledges not everybody makes it.

“We’ve had some students who leave because they aren’t used to being held accountable,” he said.

Overall, Cuellar said the programs he’s tried at Primera Plastics to attract and train young people for manufacturing careers are working, and he plans to grow his outreach efforts in the coming year.

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