WORCESTER — When Wirefab Inc. President James Samsel highlights his firm's minimal employee turnover rate, he frames it as a good-news bad-news scenario.
Many of Wirefab's 50 employees have notched decades with the company, which makes grills, baskets, racks and other products from metal wire. They love working there, earn a solid living and see the firm as a family. Those employees, though, will continue aging and eventually retire. And that fact brings Mr. Samsel to the bad news: Who will replace them? It is the biggest question looming over manufacturing today. As of yet, a robust pool of qualified candidates does not exist, he said, and local manufacturers worry about finding new employees to sustain their operations. Wirefab, whose customers include restaurant chains such as Dunkin' Donuts, is one company trying to allay those concerns. Recently, Mr. Samsel has worked with the Blackstone Valley Education Hub, an advanced manufacturing training center in Northbridge, to promote manufacturing to high school students. And with the help of the manufacturing collaborative MassMEP, the firm has developed training programs for new employees.
What has been your message to students thinking about pursing a career in manufacturing?
We have opportunities here that are far less expensive than paying $80,000 to go to college. We've had meetings with school administrators; we've had meeting with parents. And in those, we've tried to relate to them that this is not your grandfather's industry anymore. I think people still perceive us as greasy and dirty, but technology has taken over.
I've heard that pitch before, but has it been effective?
You're seeing more response to it than there has been. It was unheard of maybe four or five years ago – until everybody realized how much the pool had been drained, and they saw there was no talent available. In the past, we had tremendous trouble trying to convince people to come here. It's getting better, but the problem isn't solved.
So how has Wirefab dealt with the shortage in talent?
We have a core of young people right now that we're working very hard to train and sustain. Of our 50 employees, we have 10 or 12 in some sort of training program. And the goal is to encourage people to stay.
To stay or come?
Well, first of all, the hardest thing is to get them to come here. Then, we have to try to create a path for them so that they see there's a career here. You just can't bring somebody in, put them on a machine and forget about them. You have to work with them to create a career path, then provide them with the education to advance. That's the difference. Finding people is difficult – keeping them is harder. Last year we lost two people. One was paid $5 more an hour than what we paid, and the other was paid something like $10,000 or $12,000 more a year. Now, because there's such a lack of qualified people out there, we are the little mouse at the lion's feet. If a big manufacturing firm in the greater Worcester or Boston area is looking for talent, this is where they come looking.
The state's Manufacturing Caucus recognized Wirefab recently in part for its work in growing the workforce. What did that award mean to you and your employees?
It was an acknowledgement that our efforts are paying off. It also was an indication that we're doing well as a business. When people see that the state honored you in some way, it's impressive, and people know that you're well-rounded.
Wirefab established its employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) in 1993. How does it work?
The strength of this company is we're family-oriented – bound together. With ESOP, 33 percent of the company is owned by employees. That binds the employees together toward a common cause. These plans are interesting. To a 20-year-old, an ESOP is not important. But to a 45-year-old or older, it's very important. The ESOP is critical to our maturing staff because they know their returning benefits are contingent on the success of this company. That works to our advantage.
You have a portrait in your office of Wirefab's late founder, Asbed "Ozzie" Zakarian. Why did "Mr. Z" push for the ESOP, and what did it mean to him?
Mr. Z didn't have a family: This company was his baby. It was born on February 3, 1955, and he nurtured it until the day he died. He wanted to make sure that the people supporting his baby were taken care of and that they had a piece of the action. He was confident that they would carry this thing on to success. And so far, we've done that.
What has been the key to that success?
Success in sales is similar to success in retaining people. As I mentioned earlier, it's very difficult to find people to hire, but once you get them here, you have to convince them that this is a place they want to be. In sales, it's very difficult to go out and find yourself a prime customer. Once you get that customer, it's your responsibility to make sure it doesn't want to leave. We do an excellent job with customer service. We grab hold of a Dunkin Donuts, for example, and we just love the hell out them, doing everything in the world to assure they get quality and the timeliness. We have a core of customers that probably represent at least 50 percent of our business, all of whom we've grown with over the years.
As president, what is your biggest hope for your final years with the company?
I'm hoping to have enough staff at one time so that I can have a spreadsheet that says in the next 15 years, that guy will be gone; Joe's going to move there, and Harry will move here. Fred and Pete can slide into those positions. That spreadsheet is not full yet. There're still gaps. And we either need to do a lot more training or keep our eyes open for the talent that we hope is being trained on the outside.