On paper, Bullen Ultrasonics in Eaton, Ohio, has the trifecta of workforce challenges: It’s located in a rural area, about a 45-minute drive from Dayton. It’s a small company, lacking name recognition. And to keep up with changing demand, in the past couple of years it’s been through a dramatic shift from manually operated equipment and “pen and paper calculations” to fully automated processes that require specialization.
“The type of people we hire hasn’t changed, but the skill sets we develop are significantly different now,” says Tim Beatty, the company’s president, whose office window looks out at cornfields and more cornfields. “Parts are getting more complex, and what our customers require of us has gotten more complex.”
Where once shop-floor employees might need basic geometry skills, now they need to know programming and design in addition to the intricacies of operating high-tech machining equipment that’s built in-house. Years ago, when Beatty started as a sales rep at Bullen, he had no technical background. “Now most of our customer service folks have to be trained engineers, at least in the initial stages to interact with the design people as they’re developing processes,” he says.
Yet Bullen, which makes precision-machined components for the aerospace, automotive and medical device industries, has had no trouble attracting top-notch people. Women make up about half of the company’s 70-person workforce. Turnover is low: last year, only one employee left. And the community is taking note. In October, Bullen received first place recognitions in innovation and community involvement in the Dayton Business Journal’s Manufacturing Awards.
A combination of community outreach efforts, in-house training, partnerships with local schools and perks like tuition reimbursement keeps the company thriving and good workers knocking at the door.
With new recruits, “I’m always curious to know what they know about Bullen,” says Beatty, 42. “Most of the time, because of our operation and that we protect our intellectual property, people don’t know a whole lot about what we do: ‘Well, I looked at your website, I’m not real sure what you do, but I know it’s a good place to work because I’ve heard it’s a good place to work.’ I get that answer more often than not.’”
Beatty, who’s the grandson-in-law of company founder Jim Bullen, shared some additional thoughts on what’s helped Bullen grow into a successful advanced manufacturing company.
Bullen designs and builds its own equipment in-house, so it must develop its own training. Most of the shop-floor training is hands-on; new employees range from recent high school graduates to people with machining experience to others changing careers. “That’s one of the advantages of on-the-job training—we’re not tied down to one specific field that we can hire from,” says Beatty. New hires are assigned to a master-level employee who observes their progress over approximately three months. Salaried employees receive an extensive orientation where they learn about the customer base, budgeting and safety. Beatty talks with them about core values, the history of the company, and what the expectations are.
“We do a lot of talking here about culture,” he says.
Manufacturing Day, with a Twist
Preble County near Dayton, Ohio, where Bullen is located, is home to a lot of manufacturing firms all competing for the same people. Every student in the county participates in Manufacturing Day plant tours—the event is actually held in November because that’s when all the schools could participate. Originally, the event was geared to high school sophomores but “a lot of sophomores aren’t real sure what they want to do yet or they think they have their future planned,” says Beatty. “Most recently we’ve switched to seniors because unfortunately, even for those who are planning to go off to college, that might not work out for a financial reason. And just letting them know that there are employers where they can get a job and have tuition reimbursement—that gives them another option and we are building our future employees.”
Students go around to all the different departments at Bullen, witnessing the process of machining parts, and try a little assembly of their own at hands-on learning stations. One year, says Beatty, “I was trailing behind and I heard this group of girls say, ‘There’s a lot of women here,’ and one of our supervisors said, 'Actually, that’s true, we’re about 50 percent women.’ I was beaming, hearing the light coming on for (those girls), that maybe it was an option they hadn’t considered.”
The company was co-owned by two women, the founder’s daughters, for 20 of its years. “So it was a welcoming, friendly, ethical place to work,” says Beatty. “I think people know there is a standard for the way that not only women but every employee is treated here. We don’t do anything special in our recruiting efforts, but I have just as many women apply for the positions as men, and we take the best person for the job.”
An Education Plan
Many of Bullen’s management and engineering team members cut their teeth on the shop floor, while furthering their education with the company’s tuition reimbursement. Every employee has a career development plan that says “where do you want to go and how can we help you get there?” says Beatty. “One of our favorite parts of our job here is when we sit down with employees and they say, here’s what I’d really like to do, and we can and say, well, let’s put together an education plan.” The company’s head of business development is one success story: he started out as an operator, earned a degree through tuition reimbursement and worked his way up into management.
Another employee started right out of high school in an entry-level position and excelled there, then continued to train on the job for higher-skilled positions. At 24, he was promoted to a shift supervisor. “He has all these older men and women around him who invested in him and saw his potential and the supervisor saw his leadership abilities,” Beatty says.
Bullen partners with the nearby University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) on a program called Fast Lane that helps companies solve technical problems and improve their processes. “There have been probably 15 active projects that we’ve had with them over the years,” he says. “A lot of times it might be a physics challenge we’re having, or something around the idea of metallurgy. It could be something where we need to do a technical modeling to solve the problem and we just don’t have the internal expertise.” In exchange for their know-how, UDRI researchers receive technical data from Bullen.
Bullen also recently won a TechConnect challenge that brought a NASA metallurgist to their plant for a day to work with their technical team on some tooling issues. And the company has developed a co-op with nearby Miami University (Ohio), employing and providing partial tuition for master’s level engineering students who need practical experience while they’re completing their degrees.
Sometimes, a career development plan might actually involve scaling back on work to spend more time camping with the grandkids, or teaching part time at one of the universities. The plant is a three-shift operation, but there’s room for flex scheduling through job sharing or trading shifts with co-workers for a period of time.
Being in a Farming Community
“Farming is not a highly profitable business, so you’ve got to pull out your tools, you’ve got to get under the hood, you’ve got to figure out what you need to do,” says Beatty. “That kind of ingenuity—the ability to persevere, to use geometric principles to solve problems, to tinker—we’ve found that those people perform within the highest levels of our company.”