Karen Boyer has a sprawling job, the sort where she’s talking to the governor of Michigan about job training programs first thing in the morning and figuring out how to fill 16 maintenance technician jobs in Alabama, Michigan, and Iowa before lunch. As a vice president of general administration at automotive supplier Denso, Boyer oversees human resources for about 4,300 employees in the company’s North American operations, which reach from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, to Iruapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s been with the company since 1990, beginning her career there as a manager of corporate services.
Like many of the students she encounters visiting schools and conducting plant tours, Boyer never entertained the idea of a career in manufacturing until she visited a Denso plant during a job interview after college. She had considered social work, but finally decided that dealing with people’s open-ended problems didn’t satisfy her need to fix things. She also thought about fashion or interior design because she liked to make things, but she ultimately found the work to be too isolating.
“I came in and saw the manufacturing and I loved the buzz, the energy,” she recalls of her visit to the Denso plant. “You could see the raw materials going in on one end of the plant and finished goods going out the other end. I thought, ‘This is a good place for me because you can solve problems, you can work with people, and it’s always fast-paced and changing.”
Here, Boyer talks about the challenges of finding skilled workers for specialized jobs in the automotive industry and some creative approaches to recruiting and training the next generation of workers.
What’s been your approach to workforce development?
When I came to Denso, it was a small company--700 or 800 people [in Battle Creek, Mich.]. We needed to be seen as a leader in the community because we wanted to draw good talent. We wanted to be respected; we wanted people to appreciate our contribution to the community.
One of the things we did right away was help create and start up the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center. We felt it was key opportunity to partner with them and make sure they had a successful launch. We knew that many of those students would end up either a science or math curriculum program somewhere—and, hey, if they happened to come back to this community because this is where they’re from, all the better for Denso because we could potentially hire them.
We’ve always stayed consistently involved in that. One of our engineers is on the school’s board. We give two scholarships a year to students in that program. We’ve also brought a STEM program [for middle and high school students] to Battle Creek called Project Lead the Way. We’re partnering with the local schools to offer this program. We’ve sent our engineers in to help work with students to see the opportunities that are out there.
Where do you see gaps in STEM education?
I think some of the public schools have done a really good job of creating programs that are outside the mainstream of what a typical student would go through. If you’ve got somebody that’s more advanced, great, let’s test them, let’s put them in the math and science, which is a high level program.
The concern that we have as a company in the community with open positions, is that there’s never a discussion about: “What about the kids who aren’t your typical college-bound students?” Back in the day, you had programs like auto mechanics, home ec, building maintenance. They’ve removed those programs. So how do we tap into those students who are not college-bound who are stuck in their parents’ garage taking apart a vacuum sweeper and putting it back together. We’ve got to tap into them because we have great paying jobs and we will train and educate them in the skilled trades.
What jobs at Denso are really hard to fill?
I wouldn’t even call it as a talent shortage--as a person who wants to get 165 trucks of products out the door daily, I would call it a crisis. We don’t have enough talent in the skilled trades--maintenance people, journey people, electricians, tool and die, that kind of multi-skilled worker. And we’re not alone in that. It’s a crisis throughout the U.S. I see it in Michigan, and plants outside of Michigan. I have the same problem at my facility in Canada.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, people were encouraged to go into these fields and now they’re at retirement age. We haven’t brought up another generation of those folks. And as you automate your facility and go to more robotics, you need those kind of technical skills.
Right now I have an opening for 16 maintenance technicians. Trying to find them is incredibly challenging. Quite honestly, in a manufacturing environment, you can’t run without them. They’re the folks who do your TPM, total preventative maintenance. They take the machines down, rebuild them, make sure they’re running. Clean them when they need to be cleaned. It’s got to be running at 100%, especially when we’re running three shifts here, 24-7
If the lines go down and you can’t find the people to repair it, guess what that does to our environment? So I find it’s this new responsibility. I have to go out into the community and work with educators or technical schools or even tap into the airline schools—and say, “Are you turning out mechanics there who may not be able to get a job in the airline industry? Bring them here to auto and we’ll take them and we’ll train them.” It’s this new role I’ve had to take on because we have such a gap finding those kind of folks.
I’m trying to think creatively. If we can’t get them out of the technical schools, where else can we go? Can we go to military career fairs? That’s also been a good choice for us.
I’ve been in three meetings with the executives from the skilled trades team this week, looking at making sure our wages are competitive, the opportunities for development and movement are competitive. And I look at them and I say, “We are probably 5 to 10 years away from having this problem be completely solved.”
The other area that’s still in big demand is engineering. The four-year college degree engineers are really critical. You look at the volume of vehicles--the automakers sold more vehicles in 2014 than any year since before the recession. That’s the first time it’s crossed over 16 million since 2006. I don’t’ know that it will continue to be that high, but that’s huge. And we’ve got to have engineers who are capable of building the car parts we need to launch these vehicle platforms. Electrical, mechanical. If you have any kind of engineering, you come here, we’ll teach you the rest of it. Because we do so much education training and development here.
What sort of training do you do in-house?
Denso is a Kaizen organization. That involves working closely with employees to understand their needs, to make those small improvements that make a big difference. Top of mind for me is our development training programs. We have two-week-long leadership academies that all of our management go through. It’s very intense and it’s valuable.
And all of our production associates are part of a program we call EDGE, Empowering Development and Growth Environment. It’s a training program that requires several hours invested in computer-based training, in quality, safety, product knowledge, and the Denso approach to work and solving problems.
It’s a multi-million dollar investment and just one of the ways the company shows our employees how important they are to us.
Get me an engineer--I don’t care what kind you are--and we’ll develop your skills and train you in Denso’s approach to work and how we solve problems, and you’ll be successful.