The Connectors: Staffing companies bridge the employment divide

Like two ships passing in the night, Milwaukee-area employers and the region’s pool of job seekers often struggle to intersect on the same course, according to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Many area employers say they can’t find enough qualified job candidates, while at the same time, some area residents are unable to get a job.

However, while challenges related to convenient transportation, adequate wages and a need for more training feed the employment divide, Barrett is confident that employers can find the talent they need.

The city is trying to find “any vehicle” it can to bridge the gap between the employer community and the employee community, Barrett said, noting initiatives such as the city’s Compete Milwaukee transitional jobs program and the Mayor’s Manufacturing Partnership.

“We have to find that bridge between the ‘ships,’ and so I’ll work with anyone who will provide the transportation over that bridge so that we can bring the workers and the employers together,” Barrett said.

Along with the city’s targeted efforts, WFA Staffing, located near the former Northridge Mall on the city’s far northwest side, is making strides in crossing that bridge.

The staffing agency, situated between Interstate 43 and U.S. Highway 45, and not far from downtown Milwaukee, inner city neighborhoods and parts of Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties, connects small to mid-sized companies in the region with the employees they need to keep operations humming.

The agency, which is comprised of 20 in-house staff members plus a few who work remotely, fills positions from entry level to executive level in all industries. It focuses heavily on temporary-to-permanent job orders, but also serves temporary and direct hire demands.

While WFA’s workload typically slows down this time of year, it is up 20 percent in volume from this time last year, according to the agency’s owners. In the second week of February alone, WFA placed 82 employees, many of them minority residents from the inner city, among 32 companies in southeastern Wisconsin.

In total, WFA Staffing works with more than 100 companies on a regular basis, in addition to others that call the agency for isolated needs. The agency aids job seekers of all demographics, free of charge. WFA Staffing employer clients pay for each employee provided by WFA.

The firm’s unprecedented success in the first months of 2015 builds on the record year it experienced last year, when its revenues were up 18 percent over 2013. In the last decade, the company’s sales have increased by more than 400 percent.

Its success has been cultivated by a range of factors. Owners Tom Krist, Fred D’Amato and Todd Strehlow point to WFA Staffing’s blended team of seasoned, eager-to-learn professionals as one of the most significant drivers.

“We’re just very fortunate here,” said Strehlow, who serves as chief financial officer. “The three of us are fortunate to have such good, quality people.”
All about people
As WFA Staffing’s trio of owners navigated the purchase of the company about 10 years ago, Krist suffered a heart attack six months into the yearlong process. His heart attack hit during a vacation in Florida, where he had to undergo a quadruple bypass.

When some of his friends down South tried convincing Krist to retire in Marco Island, he shocked them with his plans to purchase a company.

“This has been the best 10 years of my life,” Krist, now 68 and president of WFA, said of his decision to take over the agency and continue his career.

Leading into the transition of the company’s ownership, Krist had more than a decade of experience in staffing and recruiting, while D’Amato, who serves as vice president, brought a decade of experience himself. Both Krist and D’Amato worked for WFA Staffing’s former owner and had also previously worked together at Trinity Resource Corp., which went bankrupt, and at MGIC.

When Krist first started working at WFA Staffing, then known as Workforce of America, he built out the company’s focus on professional and skilled positions. Until then, the agency had primarily served companies looking to fill light industrial and sales positions. Krist also pushed to establish the DBA name “WFA Staffing,” to ensure the company’s brand would reflect its professional offerings.

Together, Krist and D’Amato came to the decision that they would either venture out on their own or buy WFA Staffing. The partners brought aboard Strehlow, who had also approached Krist about starting a company.

Two months before closing on the purchase, Krist secured a four-year lease at the agency’s current location, 9001 N. 76th St., No. 201, in Milwaukee, within walking distance of the agency’s former office space on 82nd Street and Brown Deer Road. Krist committed to the lease without certainty that the sale would pan out.

The team of owners, who have remained on good terms with WFA Staffing’s former management, wanted to show that they were serious about taking over the agency, according to Krist.

Since growing its staff to 20 members and more than 500 contract to direct employees, the agency has experienced minimal employee turnover, largely as a result of the owners’ efforts to treat their team members the way they want to be treated.

“I just know that if people are treated good they generally work better,” Krist said. “And they’ll stay. They won’t leave.”

The owners’ approach to management endured even through the Great Recession, when WFA Staffing’s sales took a hit. Instead of laying off staff members, the agency lowered its pricing and issued companywide furloughs so that all staff, even managers, faced a 10 percent pay cut. Employees agreed to take a day off every other week.

“No one left,” D’Amato said. “We all survived the storm.”

High turnover rates are especially detrimental to the staffing industry, according to Krist, as businesses within the industry thrive off relationships strengthened over time.

“And you’re not going to develop relationships with a changing guard all the time,” he said.

Among the longest-standing employees at WFA Staffing is Maxine Geller, whose career in recruiting and staffing spans well over 20 years.

Geller, who has known Krist professionally since 1991, began working at WFA Staffing in 1996, before the transition in ownership. She stayed the course through the transition because, to her, WFA Staffing is “a comfort zone” and the place she feels she excels.

Geller beams with satisfaction from helping someone “with a good heart” find a job that leads them to a brighter future.

“That’s an incredible feeling,” Geller said. “That’s incredible. I still get excited when I get a permanent placement. I still get excited when I get a tough fill done.”

Her passion for the industry is fueled by her desire to help people and open them up to a sustainable career and livelihood, she said.

“That’s a big thing, I think,” Geller said.

Along with Geller and other industry veterans, WFA Staffing also has outfitted its team with up-and-comers who have helped the agency polish its LinkedIn presence.

“You need the young (and) you need the old, and we’ve got a great combination,” Krist said.

Lisa Ortiz, Jeff Ulicki and La’Tee Pratt of WFA Staffing

‘Do the right thing’
On just about any given day, D’Amato sits ready to pull the next office prank on the colleague of his choice.

Among his talents is an “inborn ability” to keep a positive attitude in the office, according to Strehlow, who emphasized the need to bring fun into the office in order to balance out the stress of the workload.

Each week, that workload stretches to Saturdays, when the office holds morning hours for job seekers who may not be able to make it in during the week.

During weeks when WFA Staffing is starting 70 or 80 new employees, its staff is in touch with at least 500 people to coordinate all of the logistics.

“You have to keep a positive attitude because we’re dealing with people,” Strehlow said.

“You have to laugh because if you don’t laugh you can get burned out pretty easily,” D’Amato said.

“We try to keep a relaxed atmosphere because there is pressure,” Krist said.

“We’re also very lucky that the three of us get along,” Strehlow said. “We have kind of different skillsets, and we appreciate each other’s skillsets.”

While Strehlow, who is a certified public accountant, oversees the agency’s finances, Krist and D’Amato manage the agency’s sales and recruiting force.

The owners’ commitment to the workplace is also shaped by their mantra: “Do the right thing.”

Milwaukee-based RCS Innovations, an interior furnishings and design company that has relied on WFA Staffing for more than 15 years, is in communication with the agency almost daily for its staffing needs.

RCS human resources manager Keshia Exum-Pryor considers the agency somewhat of an extension of her one-woman department.

“WFA really understands our culture and the people that work for us, and they really look for those people when the need is open,” said Exum-Pryor.

Maxine Geller, senior recruiter, Todd Strehlow, CFO, Tom Krist, president, Fred D’Amato, vice president, Megan DeGeorge, account executive and Roberta Murphy, senior account executive at WFA Staffing.

The struggle to identify talent
Ask one of WFA Staffing’s sales personnel the biggest challenge her job poses, and the answer will likely relate to the search for qualified job candidates.

“Finding people is the biggest challenge,” said Roberta Murphy, senior account executive and an eight-year agency veteran.

A range of issues simmer within that challenge – from a lack of reliable transportation to an increasingly competitive talent landscape to a need for more robust training programs.

“I think companies want someone to come in and hit the ground running,” Murphy said. “With such a limited talent pool now, I think companies have to be open to training individuals with a good attitude.”

Jeff Dubofsky, owner of Milwaukee-based staffing agency Staff Up America, also said the need for better workforce training initiatives feeds directly into the struggle to identify viable talent.

“We find a lack of strong educational foundation within the city limits, and with education there comes the training issue,” said Dubofsky, whose agency has a niche in filling light industrial labor staffing, as well as hotel and hospitality needs. “There comes the length of time that people do spend on jobs to be able to build a resume and to be able to build workforce experience and business acumen.”

Both WFA Staffing and Staff Up America serve a significant number of minority job seekers living in Milwaukee. The majority of prospective employees served by Staff Up America come from a two- to three-mile radius around its south side office at 1138 W. Lincoln Ave. About 70 percent of job seekers who turn to WFA Staffing live in Milwaukee, and more than half of those residents are minority job seekers.

Krist describes that pool of job candidates as an “untapped workforce.”

The Great Recession took a major toll on Milwaukee’s inner city economies and many of its minority residents. According to an analysis of 2010 census data by Marc Levine, an employment expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, only 44.7 percent of the Milwaukee metro area’s working-age black males (16 to 64) were employed in 2010, the lowest rate ever recorded for black males in Milwaukee.

Both WFA Staffing and Staff Up America insist that plenty of jobs are waiting to be filled by job seekers ready to apply themselves.

“It’s a balance between what the expectation of the employee is, what the expectation of the client is, and the employee’s ability or the prospective employee’s ability to manage his or her time to make the best of those job opportunities that are available,” Dubofsky said.

Krist, D’Amato and Strehlow purchased WFA Staffing 10 years ago.

Slow and steady
As WFA Staffing has expanded throughout the past decade in terms of its internal team, office space and staffing capacity, its growth has followed a slow, steady rhythm, according to its owners.

After several office expansions, including one last year that doubled the size of its space to 4,800 square feet, it is eyeing yet another expansion opportunity at its current location. The agency is also plotting out steps to open a second office within the next two years.

One location possibility for that office, which would heavily cater to the region’s Hispanic population, is the corridor between Kenosha and Racine.

WFA Staffing must first pinpoint the right people to open and manage a second site, Krist said.

The agency will continue its expansion plan with the slow and steady pace that has secured its success in the past decade.

And with no intention of retiring anytime soon, Krist plans to remain at the helm of that plan for the foreseeable future.

“I gave up golf because I’d rather be here on Saturday,” he said. “It’s more fun.”

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