Sheboygan County’s employment problem

Filling thousands of open jobs harder than it would seem


While many rust belt communities with manufacturing-heavy economies have struggled to regain lost jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, 60 miles north of Milwaukee, the lakeside city of Sheboygan has been struggling with the opposite problem – a glut of well-paying manufacturing and office jobs.

In April, Sheboygan County, which has a population of just fewer than 115,000, posted an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, well below the state rate of 4.3.

While Sheboygan County is hardly alone in the state with healthy employment statistics – nearby Fond du Lac also had an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent as of April, followed closely by La Crosse (3.7 percent) and Appleton (3.8 percent) – the sheer number of open jobs at its cluster of large companies (many family-owned) is unique.

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Since January, there have been between 3,000 and 4,000 open jobs at any given time at the county’s largest employers, such as Kohler Co., Bemis Manufacturing Co., Nemak, Sargento Foods Inc., Acuity and Johnsonville Sausage.

A view of North Eighth Street, the main street in downtown Sheboygan.
A view of North Eighth Street, the main street in downtown Sheboygan.

The problem has been finding people to fill them.

“In terms of bringing people in, Sheboygan County has grown in the last couple of years, but we have not grown at a rate that will be able to fill all of our jobs right now,” said Dane Checolinski, director of the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. “We’re trying to put the accelerator on that.”

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The city of Sheboygan’s population has been remarkably consistent over the past four decades, fluctuating between 48,000 and 51,000 people since 1970.

The county population has grown, but at a slow rate – from around 97,000 in 1970 to just fewer than 115,000 in 2013.

As a result, its housing inventory is being stretched to the limit as employers attract families to the area. Homes are selling at their fastest clip since 2008 and last year, the city of Sheboygan had an apartment vacancy rate of 0.4 percent, according to a housing study commissioned by city leaders.

Now, with thousands of new jobs, the city and county are poised for significant growth and local political and business leaders have been busy trying to capitalize on the growth-friendly climate by attracting both workers to fill immediate workforce needs and developers to expand its housing inventory.

At the same time, local businesses have been working with Sheboygan North and Sheboygan South high schools, as well as Lakeshore Technical College, to develop manufacturing training programs to bridge the local skills gap and encourage young people in the area to consider a career in manufacturing.

“We have noticed a worker shortage that’s been evident for the last year or two,” said Sheboygan Mayor Mike Vandersteen. “With the current baby boom generation going away, there’s going to be a real attrition in the number of workers we’re going to have. This isn’t a one- or two-year problem; this is going to be a decade-long problem we’re going to have to face.”

The city has been aggressively seeking new development. Around $37 million worth of housing projects will be under construction by the end of June that could add another 700 people to downtown Sheboygan, with an additional 120 units planned in the surrounding communities.

To help connect job seekers with Sheboygan County employers, the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. has launched a website, complete with marketing materials about area amenities, that includes job postings from local businesses. As of June 1, there were more than 3,100 available.

The EDC and the city are also conducting a study on whether running buses later at night would help employers fill second and third shift jobs.

“We’re doing a lot of outreach work and we’re starting to ramp up our marketing,” said Sargento human resources director Marilyn Morrissey.

Sargento plans to hire 45 production employees by the end of 2016 to work at a new 60,000-square-foot facility in Hilbert in nearby Calumet County.

When the expansion was announced in 2015, it was expected to eventually create 140 new jobs.

Morrissey said one of the major questions the company is answering for potential employees is: Where is Plymouth, Wisconsin?

Another: What does the area have to offer?

Looking southeast on the corner of North Eighth Street and New York Avenue in downtown Sheboygan.
Looking southeast on the corner of North Eighth Street and New York Avenue in downtown Sheboygan.

Not a one horse community

“From a GDP standpoint we’ve grown at 3.2 percent, which is roughly twice the national average last year and three times faster than the state,” Checolinski said. “Durable goods manufacturing has accounted for 0.75 percent of our growth, insurance and finance also 0.75 percent, and nondurable goods manufacturing, which includes food processing, grew 0.75 percent as well.”

Checolinski said Sheboygan’s large number of family-owned companies that aren’t publicly traded put the area in a good position after the country began emerging from the Great Recession.

“In the downturn, they were able to make long-term strategic moves to buy market share,” he said. “Now that the economy has bounced back, they have come back stronger.”

And they came back stronger all at once. Although development projects are in the works and new technical training programs are being developed, Sheboygan County employers still have immediate and glaring workforce needs. The demand has given rise to creative solutions.

Last summer, Greater Praise Church of God in Christ on Milwaukee’s northwest side began busing Milwaukee residents to work at Sheboygan employers.

Called the Joseph Project, the initiative takes people looking for work in a neighborhood with high unemployment and puts them through a week-long soft skill training session, then gives them an opportunity to interview at Sheboygan companies.

The program has connected more than 50 Milwaukee residents to Sheboygan jobs. The Sheboygan EDC donated two additional vans to the Joseph Project in May.

Cassandra Zinkel, Kohler Co.’s senior manager of talent sourcing, said Kohler has been looking into “alternative arrangements” for potential employees currently living in Milwaukee or Chicago that wouldn’t require them to commute back and forth to Sheboygan County.

Kohler is hoping to hire 550 new employees by the end of 2016 – two-thirds of them to fill newly created positions and the rest to replace employees lost due to organic turnover.

Of the company’s greatest recruitment challenges “perception is one of them,” Zinkel said.

“Some folks haven’t been to Sheboygan County,” she said. “I think there is maybe the perception that it is farther away from the metro Milwaukee area than it really is. So a lot of it is education; educating them on what it is like to live here and work here.”

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