BYRON CENTER — As a veteran of the machine and cutting tools industry, Jeff Swift launched Swift Placement and Consulting this month to meet the talent needs of a niche manufacturing segment.
Swift broke into the business at the age of 17 when he completed a machinist apprenticeship. He would later embark on a long career primarily in machine tool sales and executive roles.
His most recent stops were as vice president of sales at Los Angeles-based advanced machine solutions provider Ellison Technologies Inc., and he held the same role at Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based DMG MORI USA Inc., which he recently left to start his new venture.
While at DMG MORI, Swift noticed that the recruiters on staff struggled to find workers who fit the company culturally, often bringing on employees who jumped from job to job. Swift eventually carried out his own headhunting duties to meet the needs of his sales teams.
“I love the industry, but this is the part that we really struggle with,” Swift said. “No one really knows our niche business — no one understands what we’re looking for. You can’t just throw someone in there that doesn’t fit that culture.
“That’s what I wanted to do: Change things and help the industry because we’re really struggling to grow our younger generation, too.”
Based out of his home in Byron Center, Swift teamed up with machine and cutting tools manufacturers across the country that readily brought him positions to fill. While he currently is a one-man operation, Swift said he plans to hire another person in the coming months.
“The kryptonite is turnover in our industry,” Swift said. “These customers are spending $500,000, $600,000 or $1 million on a machine and all of a sudden the salesperson is gone.”
However, Swift recruits and places more than just sales executives. He specializes in high-end machinists, manufacturing engineers, automation engineers, service managers and C-level executives.
In a climate where finding general labor is tough enough, sourcing a skilled machinist can be like spotting a unicorn. While his extensive network is certainly a help, Swift said he is careful to avoid overpromising in this tricky labor market.
“I’m setting expectations right away,” Swift said. “If I have a customer that wants me to do 10 placements, I’ll say, ‘Hey, give me the top three most urgent areas that you want and then let’s start there and really try to focus on that.’”
A ‘scary time’
While Swift’s company focuses on a specific segment of manufacturing, it reflects the ongoing labor dilemma across the broader industry.
Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives for West Michigan economic development firm The Right Place Inc., said the combination of agencies like Swift’s, statewide job training programs, and the efforts of companies’ in-house human resources departments show an “all hands on deck” approach to quell the labor problem.
According to a joint study released last month by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the industry is expected to see 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, which could cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion.
The survey of U.S. manufacturers showed that 36 percent of respondents are finding it hard to recruit talent right now compared to 2018, even though the candidate pool is twice the size as it was three years ago.
Brown said the most pressing need is for entry-level shop floor workers, but the necessary skills to fill open positions is slowly changing.
“As we’re moving toward Industry 4.0, there are companies that have smart robotics and smart automation. Skill requirements are different,” she said. “They always say that it’s a career lattice and not just a career ladder. Manufacturers need talent at different levels. The entry level is where you see the most need right now.”
While many employers blame enhanced unemployment benefits as a reason for sidelining capable workers, Brown said that higher pay from companies also isn’t necessarily the silver bullet to attract workers.
“Along with pay, people want to feel valued,” she said. “They want to know the job they’re doing means something to the company. Or we hear that candidates want flexibility, and flexibility can mean different things. … The more (a recruiter) can get to know the hire and what they are motivated by, that helps.”
Matt Tyler, president and CEO of New Troy-based Vickers Engineering Inc. in Southwest Michigan, said his precision machining business expects significant growth through 2023. He is concerned about whether he can find the talent to fill the new positions.
Vickers Engineering, which supplies the automotive, agriculture, military, and oil and gas industries, currently employs 175 people. That number is expected to grow to 200 people before the end of the year.
“It’s a scary time right now because of the market conditions and the labor conditions,” Tyler said. “We’re in the same boat as everyone else. It’s tough, for sure.”