Sun Prairie video series aims to undo manufacturing’s ‘dirty’ reputation

The manufacturing sector has a lingering image problem, and it’s preventing many local businesses from putting their best foot forward.

Manufacturers’ ongoing dilemma is simple: Before they can attract the next generation of workers, they need to clear the air — and that involves letting people know that the atmosphere inside their facilities is not choked with the clouds of soot, dirt, and coal dust that many high school graduates imagine when choosing a career path.

Since 2001, the Manufacturing Institute has published a Skills Gap Report in conjunction with Deloitte Consulting. In its most recent study, from 2011, the organization revealed that 51% of the companies it surveyed had reported difficulty maintaining production levels consistent with customer demand as a result of workforce shortages and skill deficiencies.

“People who may not have any exposure to manufacturing, especially in today’s world, kind of have the idea of manufacturing as being in a coal mine — dirty, godawful, fumes everywhere, smoke billowing, black lung.” — Neil Stechschulte, economic development director, City of Sun Prairie

And local businesses are no stranger to this problem. Just ask Sun Prairie Economic Development Director Neil Stechschulte.

“People who may not have any exposure to manufacturing, especially in today’s world, kind of have the idea of manufacturing as being in a coal mine — dirty, godawful, fumes everywhere, smoke billowing, black lung,” said Stechschulte. “There are all these awful perceptions of manufacturing, and it just really couldn’t be further from the truth in most cases.

“They’re using clean-room technology, and the lighting is natural daylighting, and it’s just a complete 180 of what the misperception is a lot of times of manufacturing.”

The disconnect between what modern workplaces are really like and how people often perceive them was enough of an issue that the City of Sun Prairie, its businesses, and its school officials recently sat down to brainstorm some solutions, and that sparked an idea.

“We didn’t have to identify the issue, we had already done that, but we really got thinking about what we could do to make these connections between local businesses, our students, and parents,” said Stechschulte. “And fortunately for us in Sun Prairie, my department oversees our local media center here, our cable access channel.

“So I thought, ‘I wonder if we could use our equipment and our studio and staff to do some very basic videos to let people know what jobs are available in the marketplace, and what kinds of salaries and benefits they offer. But the videos are really aimed at showing people what the inside of these companies look like.”

The city’s video series is the cornerstone of its Sun Prairie Works initiative, which was designed to increase awareness of employment opportunities available in Sun Prairie. Each video includes an intro from the company’s president, CEO, or other top official; an overview of the company; a listing of available positions; information on the skills those jobs require; and information on benefits and wages.

For an initiative that was launched only last November, Sun Prairie Works has already built plenty of momentum, with six videos currently posted on the city’s economic development website. So far, the city and participating employees haven’t tried to measure their success in recruiting employees through the videos, but according to Stechschulte, the initial feedback has been positive.

“The individual companies that have had videos done for them have really liked them,” said Stechschulte.

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Right now, the Sun Prairie Works site includes videos from Palmer Johnson Power Systems, Royle Printing, Madison Kipp Corp., Four Lakes Label, and Thermal Spray Technologies, and the city is preparing to post videos from Trachte Building Systems and Brooks Tractor. But while the series was spurred by a desire to give local manufacturers and others that suffer from the “dirty jobs” label a chance to shine, Stechschulte said the city will consider creating videos for other employers as well.

“Right now, we’re starting in terms of more manufacturing-type employers,” said Stechschulte. “We plan on continuing to go through this process and get more companies involved. Anybody who wants to do one of these, we’ll be happy to work with them, but I have to make sure I don’t overburden our media center staff.”

Virtual field trips

While Stechschulte notes that the videos are a good outreach tool in general, they also solve a specific problem that manufacturers face when it comes to piquing the interest of area youth who might be ideal candidates for certain trades.

“There are a lot of issues with certain manufacturing facilities having individuals under 18 years of age out on a manufacturing floor, for insurance reasons and liability reasons,” said Stechschulte. “There are a lot of roadblocks for certain companies to be able to allow that. So walking through and being able to kind of show what’s going on with some of these companies, it’s going to be a lot more direct access.”

Meanwhile, the city is contemplating making it easier for residents, who may drive pass local companies dozens of times a week without knowing what goes on inside, to get a glimpse of those businesses’ inner workings.

“One thing we’d like to do this spring is, we’re actually thinking about using QR codes and putting up signs in front of each of these companies, where someone could actually take their smartphone and go up to the building,” said Stechschulte. “If you want to know more about what’s going on there, you could scan the QR code and it would take you right to the video online.”

And if the videos — along with the city’s amenities, schools, and transportation access — help attract more skilled workers to Sun Prairie, that’s all the better, said Stechschulte.

“We think the more we can establish an employee base here, that really makes it easier to go and attract those companies.”

Two of the Sun Prairie Works initiative’s video profiles are embedded below.

Royle Printing:

Palmer Johnson Power Systems:

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