.....Advertisement.....
.....Advertisement.....

Growing pains

-A A +A

Local industries hiring, expanding, but unemployment remains at 10% as labor challenges emerge

By Brent Schanding

CAMPBELL COUNTY—From the four-lane in LaFollette, it appears to be an inconspicuous 250,000 square-foot brick building. But once inside, the building takes on a new life as forklifts buzz and 294 gloved hands work to make and move dozens of one-of-a-kind products that will likely end up in hospitals as far away as the Middle East.

Welcome to DeRoyal — a local manufacturing subsidiary that fabricates and packages devices routinely used by doctors and healthcare providers across the world.

From surgical kits to hospital gowns, the inventory here is special-ordered and awaiting shipment to most everywhere.

“They need all kinds of different things to do surgeries,” said Misty Williams, quality supervisor for DeRoyal, who adds business is literally “booming.”

As the Baby Boomer generation ages and more patients opt for elective surgery, the need for locally-supplied medical instruments and products is skyrocketing, she said.

But the high demand for quality products means the demand is even high for quality work crews.

That’s why each worker at DeRoyal is trained to be hypersensitive to the sterility and content of every package that leaves the facility.

“We have a zero defects policy,” Williams said. “A mistake is somebody’s life.”

Packages are inspected for holes and other potential issues to meet and exceed federal Food and Drug Administration standards.

But the rigor sometimes makes it difficult to find and retain local laborers, Williams said.

While manufacturing remains the backbone of Campbell County — providing as many as a thousand jobs to the local economy — Williams and other industry leaders say it’s a challenge to hire and keep good laborers because many don’t meet minimum entrance requirements, cannot pass a drug screen or don’t uphold certain standards or expectations once they gain employment.

Even as many local industries are expanding facilities and their workforces, the county’s unemployment still hovers at 10.8 percent.

It’s stagnated near those levels since 2008, according to reports cited by the Campbell County Small Business Incubator.

So, with all of the current growth and expansion within Campbell County’s industries, why are more than 1-in-10 workers still out of a job here?

There’s no easy answer, according to industry experts.

SNAPSHOT OF INDUSTRY

Campbell County remains an attractive place to grow industry, according to representatives of local plants and manufacturing facilities.

Just ask Will Trent, plant manager for MATIX Corporation of America — a local facility that manufactures parts for Japanese automaker giant Toyota.

The Pioneer-based facility has grown from 92 to 115 employees since last year.

It’s a dramatic rebound since a 2010 tsunami largely ravaged areas near the company’s Japanese life center. Workforce output was greatly hampered in Japan, which ultimately affected nearly all plants connected to Asian automotive operations, including MATIX.

But Trent says the Pioneer facility is now robust and strong.

“MATIX is growing, and we’re growing here,” said Trent. “In fact, we still have the hiring gate open right now.”

The return of American manufacturing jobs is actually a trend, Trent says. As the U.S. dollar weakens globally and costs to produce items abroad exponentially increase, more manufacturers are coming back to the states.

To keep up with order demands, laborers at MATIX are sometimes working around the clock — amassing loads of overtime — to churn out between 3,100 and 3,500 parts per day.

“We can fill a tractor trailer up pretty quickly,” Trent said.

The parts are then shipped across the region and world to assemble automobiles.

Inside the MATIX plant, it’s a maze of conveyor belts. Lines operate in synchronicity and are streamlined to maximize efficiency.

But even the most systematic operations still require a dependable and competent workforce.

Despite a competitive wage (second-shift workers typically earn $10 per hour), insurance benefits and a standard retirement plan, Trent said absenteeism at MATIX is the biggest reason for workforce turnover.

“It’s not strenuous, but you’re on your feet,” he said. “It’s basically a big pattern all day.”

The plant also enforces a zero-tolerance policy against drugs, which can be difficult in a county plagued by drug problems.

“We do random drug testing onsite. And we don’t just say we do it,” Trent said. “We’re trying to keep our people as safe as we can up here.”

Across the county at BSH in Jacksboro, the efforts to recruit, retain and promote the best workforce — while coping with growing pains — is similar.

“It’s just got to be the right attitude for us to work,” said Chris Strange, human resources manager for BSH, which builds high-end Thermador cooking ranges and other appliances.

The plant employs about 160-170 workers and is looking to grow.

“We’re at our capacity for how many products we can build,” Strange said. “This is as much as we’ve ever produced.”

Strange recently led a group of Campbell County Leadership students through the local plant and stopped by the design engineering office, which will soon be replaced by a two-story office.

He says the plant has recently invested in as much as $3 million worth of new equipment.

And here’s another report of growth: Proimage Fabrication in Jacksboro — a plant that constructs large commercial signs for such international players as Chrysler and Wells Fargo — has already broken ground outside Jacksboro to expand its facility to about 75,000 square feet of work space, according to reports from management.