Hunt for Talent: Part 1 of a 3-Part Series

07.14.2021

This article originally appeared on Metal Center News on January 18, 2021.

By Beth Gainer

For many service centers, the pandemic caused business to slow down, resulting in layoffs, furloughs and reduced pay. Companies have bounced back and started to hire. Some in the metals industry have re-hired quality employees or found new personnel, while others are still searching for the perfect fit.

Roswell, Ga.-based Kloeckner Metals is hiring again, despite initial layoffs. “We had to reduce some of our head count like many companies experiencing changes in business demand due to the coronavirus, but business has picked back up, and at this point, we still need staff in many of our locations,” says Amanda Middendorf, vice president of Human Resources.

O’Neal Manufacturing Services, Birmingham, Ala., initiated salary reductions for many management and corporate positions, and in some locations experienced a heavy impact to customer forecasting, creating the need to reduce their workforce through furloughs and layoffs. The company used this stressful time to evaluate how to improve its efficiency and reduce costs.

Human Resources Director Amy Gartman says over the last several months business operations at OMS have experienced a significant reduction in hiring, but she is hopeful that will soon change. “Now that we see the economy trending in a positive direction, individuals who were once furloughed are starting to integrate back into the workforce,” she says. She also shared her optimism that customer demand will increase in Q1 and Q2 of 2021, causing the need to hire additional staff.

Lisle, Ill.-based Leeco Steel, an affiliate company of O’Neal Industries, is also optimistic. “I’m happy to say that we’re already making plans. We recently posted new warehouse and sales openings to be filled immediately,” says Mary Latronica, human resources manager. “We plan to fill more positions in 2021, so I think that’s really good news.”

She is confident Leeco Steel will find talented warehouse employees. “I anticipate that we’ll probably find some good-quality people for all our job postings, but particularly on the warehouse side,” Latronica says. “Maybe applicants won’t have as much experience as we typically see, but we are willing to train them. I am hopeful that there’s a big job market of good, quality people who are willing to get back to work.”

Pre-pandemic, Steel Warehouse Company Inc., South Bend, Ind., sought quality employees, but the coronavirus crisis forced the company to lay off workers instead. Now there’s a silver lining: “In September [business] started ramping up, and we’re starting to look for people again,” says Charles von Hermann, vice president of human resources.

Cheryl Shelton, human resources manager at Target Steel Inc., Flat Rock, Mich., has also found a rebound after laying off employees. “We had our first layoff in the history of the company due to Mr. COVID,” she says. Luckily, a couple of months later, the company rehired almost all those employees.

The War for Talent

In January and February, Olympic Steel, Bedford Heights, Ohio, was in a hiring spurt. “Then the pandemic hit, so it changed everything,” says Cassy Powers, regional human resources manager, adding the company had experienced a drop in shipments. While the business wanted to hold onto all its employees, furloughs and layoffs were inevitable.
Olympic Steel is hiring again. However, the company’s applicant pool has been smaller than it was pre-pandemic. This has caused the business to fiercely compete against other companies for quality shop helpers, machine operators and maintenance personnel, among others. “We’re all fighting over the same candidate pool right now, and we’re hoping that changes,” says Powers.

Middendorf agrees there is tough competition for talented employees. “In the manufacturing sector, essential businesses never shut down, and from our perspective, it has actually made the war for talent more competitive in our industry,” she says.

Kloeckner Metals is now searching for skilled long-term employees. “We have to be creative about where we’re sourcing for talent, especially in light of the fact that we’re looking for long-term team members who have the desire to grow with the organization, not just simply folks who may be looking for a short-term job,” says Middendorf.

And the search for talent requires tapping a variety of resources. Kloeckner Metals has developed its relationships with technical schools and colleges, as well as having a referral program. “Some of our current employees’ friends and families are the best possible fits for us,” she says. Staffing partnerships are also key in recruiting fresh talent.

Entry-level opportunities abound for those hoping to start a career – from general warehouse to crane operator to skilled machine operator. “A few of our locations are even looking for supervisory positions, which is a great opportunity for folks who maybe have some supervisory or team leadership experience in another organization but potentially experienced job loss due to the coronavirus,” says Middendorf.

Century Metals and Supplies Inc. is a service center headquartered in Miami Gardens, Fla., with a branch for distribution in Orlando. According to general manager Henry Valdivia, the applicant pool was surprisingly small. “The pandemic had an effect on hiring, contrary to what we expected because we thought we should see a lot more applicants due to the heavy unemployment.” Valdivia notes it is tough to find quality workers – from general warehouse workers to forklift drivers to machine operators for the slitters and cut-to-length lines. “Because there are not many service centers in South Florida, it’s very hard to find skilled labor,” he says.

Century Metals and Supplies finds itself competing with Amazon, which has opened new warehouses and has widely advertised for positions. “Amazon started recruiting heavily from all over – from drivers to warehouse personnel,” Valdivia says, adding that the company had to increase its staff’s base salaries to keep them. “We try not to lose [employees]. We can’t pay those high wages as some conglomerate companies, but we pretty much stay in our market range of pay with the respective positions, so we’ve been fortunate.”

At Steel Warehouse, von Hermann has found it difficult to find quality employees. “The biggest thing we need right now is skilled laborers, so for the plant here, we’re talking about millwrights. We have a couple of plants nearby that are looking for tube mill operators. Those are absolutely critical for us right now, and of course we do have normal production positions available.”

“In fact, we’ve gotten to the point where some of the skilled positions we’ll actually pay for relocation. That’s how tough it is,” he continues. “I just don’t think that the next generation is as interested in hands-on, skill-oriented labor as there has been in the past.”

To acquire new talent, the company does outreach to local schools. “We try to educate people that the trades are an absolutely fantastic way to make a living. Even when we lay off, we don’t lay off our skilled trades,” von Hermann says. “It’s a comparably safer position than most – at least from a downturn standpoint.”

For Shelton, finding an experienced slitter operator is as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. “Typically the slitter operators are experienced employees,” she says, “and there’s not a whole lot of experienced people in the slitter field, and that makes it a tad more challenging [to find employees].”

Finding skilled trades people is not a concern for Flack Global Metals. The company, now headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. with three other U.S. locations, seeks a solid work ethic as well as “transferable skills,” according to Renée Kirk, the company’s chief of staff. A 10-year-old service center with 50 employees, Flack Global Metals owns offices, not a facility. The business provides OEMs with flat-rolled, sheet aluminum, and stainless products. Staff work closely with trusted vendors to process and supply the metals.

Kirk’s background is in retail management, and she has an interior design degree, both of which did not impede her from being hired in the metals industry. “The CEO, Jeremy Flack, trusted me and gave me the space to try, fail, learn, repeat,” she says. Because employees are encouraged to learn by trial and error, they can become more independent and thus more confident in the skills they acquire.

Recruiting in the Metals Industry

Businesses looking to recruit talent often turn to Charles Stickler Associates, Lancaster, Pa. The company recruits solely for the metals industry. At least 90 percent of its clients are service centers and processors, the rest being other kinds of companies such as specialty mills.

“Companies come to us with a specific set of criteria, and we go out and try to match the best possible person from within the industry,” says President Chuck Stickler. “It’s a tough industry. I think as a whole, the metals industry doesn’t do a great job recruiting new people into it.”

He describes the industry as “top-heavy with Baby Boomers” and adds that, because of this, the next five years will witness many unfilled positions.

Stickler finds that although some individuals are happy to be working with metals, this is not typically the case. “I think we lose people to sexier industries, so everybody straight out of college wants to go work for Google, Apple, Microsoft or Amazon, and I think it’s rare to find somebody younger who wants to come into metals,” he says. “The huge challenge for the metals industry going forward is recruiting that new talent.”

With so few individuals entering the industry, it’s no wonder why the competition for new talent is so intense.

Stickler says the field of welding, however, does attract talent. He attributes this to the field being well-advertised, unlike some of the other metals trades. “I think it’s hard to get people into metallurgy,” he says. “When companies ask me to find a metallurgist – which is often – I think we’re finding fewer and fewer colleges that teach it and more and more foreign students [going into it]. On one side, this is great, but it’s a shame on the other side because why aren’t kids from our country going into that?”

Add the pandemic into the mix, and recruiting has been challenging. “There’s a lot of fear about taking a chance to go to a new company with [this] going on,” says Stickler. “So if somebody’s employed, they are very apprehensive to make that move. People are walking away from much more money and a bigger position because they are just afraid to take that chance. Who can blame them?”

Most of the people his company places are already employed. “We’re going after people who have a specific [skill] set, but obviously in a situation where a lot of companies have to let everyone go, you really have to talk to a lot of people to find out what the situation is,” says Stickler. “You don’t want to overlook somebody because they got caught up in a furlough; you really have to take the time to talk to each person and find out what their story is.”

The silver lining is there is a sea change – some people are choosing trade schools over colleges. “There’s a much bigger push now to get people to go into trade schools.”

Natalie Spira
Natalie Spira is Kloeckner's Marketing Communications Manager. Previously, she was the CEO and Founder of Fraction Marketing, a marketing agency catering to ecommerce startups. Natalie holds a MBA from Tel Aviv University with concentrations in entrepreneurship and marketing and a BA in English from UCLA.
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