Getting It Done, South Of The Border

Starting operations in a foreign country can be a harrowing experience. Unfamiliar regulations, politics and currencies are just some of the things to worry about. But for one company, finding skilled employees south of the border was not an issue.

So, your company is doing well and your customers are asking you to open branch offices closer to where they do business – a foreign country to be exact. While the logistics of opening an office outside of the U.S. is a big task, concern about finding good employees can be an even bigger concern.

This is the position that Advanced Technology Services Inc. found itself in when it decided to open an operation in Mexico. ATS, headquartered in Peoria, Ill., provides managed services for equipment maintenance, and by sourcing plant maintenance to ATS, manufacturers can increase the productivity of their facilities by concentrating on their core business.

In January 2007, ATS opened its first international office in Monterrey, Mexico, close to where its customers had factories. The experience of setting up its first foreign office was generally positive, but the company was especially pleased with the caliber of workers found among the Mexican nationals.

"We needed to hire about 90 people to staff our offices in Mexico," said Jeffery Owens, president of ATS, "and we were delighted with the educational and skill level of the Mexicans who applied for jobs. They had four-year engineering degrees, or were graduates of a technical school or had good practical experience."

Because most of ATS' employees work on-site at other companies, traits such as a positive attitude, good personal appearance and customer-service abilities – what Owens calls good "people" skills – are as important as an employee's technical skill and knowledge.

Owens is also quick to point out that he finds plenty of good workers in the U.S., even though he admits American manufacturers are facing challenges in hiring skilled labor.

"We really don't have a problem finding good workers here in the U.S.," noted Owens. "But that is because at ATS we take a very pro-active approach when hiring employees and that is probably something that a lot of businesses don't do."

ATS tries to balance technical skills with "soft skills," such as customer service, to develop a well-rounded employee - an employee that will be happy with his job and will want to stay with the company.

"It takes more effort to find, train and keep good employees," Owens said. "But in the long run the effort is worth it, whether you are hiring here in the U.S. or in a foreign country."

According to Owens, companies cannot just "hire people off the street" even if they have a good education or come from a technical school, and expect them to become excellent employees.

"A lot of manufacturers hire people from technical schools or engineering institutions and then just 'drop' them on the plant floor, thinking that they will know what to do," said Owens. "But these employees need training on the shop floor, because while they might have 'book' knowledge, they probably haven't had any 'real-world work experience.' "

Manufacturing as a career choice, though, is one area where Owens found a significant difference between the U.S. and Mexico.

"In Mexico, attending a technical school and getting a good manufacturing job is considered a prestigious career path, so we had no problem finding qualified employees," Owens noted. "And that's just not always the case here in the U.S."

But this is a perception that has to change, Owens said, especially since the wages and benefits for manufacturing jobs can be quite good.

"With a good manufacturing job, you can have a secure job, a nice life and raise a family – something akin to the "American dream" -- but you have to get students and parents to consider manufacturing as a career option, and that's been hard to do," commented Owens. "Manufacturing is not a dirty, physically-demanding job done in poorly lit and badly ventilated factories. Today's factories are clean, safe, sophisticated and the work is challenging, requiring math and science skills along with technical training."

Owens believes that students need to be exposed to the manufacturing environment, and that school guidance counselors should consider manufacturing as a viable career option. "Manufacturing is a better career than most people realize," Owens said, "and right now, manufacturing is not attracting the best and the brightest in the U.S."

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