Wyoming Machine wins award from U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Small manufacturers in Greater Minnesota have faced challenges for years in hiring qualified employees. Recently, Lori and Traci Tapani of Wyoming Machine won national recognition for the innovative way they have tackled this problem.

They told their story in MinnPost, beginning this way:

The biggest challenge in running our small business in Stacy, Minnesota, hasn’t been working together as sisters. It hasn’t even been explaining to people that, although the shop is called Wyoming Machine, we aren’t based anywhere near the state of Wyoming.

No, the biggest challenge has been finding employees to work in our precision sheet metal business.

The Tapanis, who run a family business, say they began thinking and working toward a solution to this challenge almost two decades ago, as their parents aged:

Our real wake-up call came when we read a Bureau of Labor Statistics report in 2000, which stated that almost 54 percent of workers 45 and older would leave the metals manufacturing industry between 1998 and 2008.

Not wanting to wait for someone else to provide a solution, we decided to join up with nearby Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC).

As part of their plan, the sisters began hosting manufacturing tours for potential employees, and got involved in a program called Women in Technology, with a program that introduced sixth-grade girls to STEM careers.

Through the partnership with PTCC, Wyoming Machine received “distance eliminating learning equipment,” which makes is possible for a PTCC professor to provide on-site, customized training to the company’s employees. Wyoming Machine provides input about the training its employees need, and the employees earn college credit while at work. The arrangement was made possible by a grant PTCC received from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Through PTCC, the sisters say, they learned about workers like Sue Greeley from North Branch, Minnesota. Though Greeley, in her mid-40s, had “great life experience,” she had no hands-on experience in manufacturing. Typically, according to the Tapanis,

We’d hire someone with sheet metal knowledge to be an inspector in the quality department, but this time we decided to take a chance on Sue.

We could tell she was a self-starter from her work at PTCC, where she took classes and earned valuable credentials. She had a good personality fit for our company and, again, we were facing very few qualified candidates.

Sue now leads the inspection department, supervising two others, and her compensation has increased with her responsibilities.

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce honored the Tapanis’ partnership with PTCC and the sisters’ commitment to educating the workforce of tomorrow.

Wyoming Machine shared this honor with much larger companies, including Honeywell, one of Minnesota’s largest employers. Honeywell, the sisters write, “is an early adopter of emerging technologies such as virtual reality to try to make upskilling, onboarding, and other skill-building processes more efficient and effective.”

The Tapanis closed their MinnPost story with encouragement to other employers:

There are currently 5 million unfilled jobs, partly because of an underprepared workforce, yet the unemployment rate for people 20-24 sits at 7 percent.

If we hadn’t thought about upskilling the small business workforce, specifically our workforce, we would just be complaining about the problem, instead of proactively doing something to fix it.