How Experienced Employees Have Positioned State Line for Success
Retaining Experienced Employees Ensures High Quality, Short Lead Times
The foundry industry is booming today, but that hasn’t always been the case. There were slowdowns just last year– and a full-blown recession in 2008-2009.
These tough times shaped how State Line Foundries manages its workforce during industry downturns. And it’s a big reason that the company has been able to bounce back quickly from the 2020 pandemic recession.
We’re all in this together
“We do everything we can to keep our employees on staff during the slower times,” says Jesse Milks, president of State Line Foundries, which operates facilities in Roscoe and South Beloit, Illinois.
Last year was slow because of the coronavirus. “We were adamant about keeping our foundries fully staffed and working 40 hours a week,” Milks emphasizes. “We moved our employees to different areas of the foundry, we cross-trained, we took on special projects.
“There were times when this approach made me quite nervous,” he acknowledges. “But fortunately, we were able to get through it.”
State Line’s steadfast commitment to its employees is paying off. The industry turned around earlier this year, and State Line was able to ramp up quickly to accommodate the upturn.
“Employees are our most valuable asset, especially in our niche market of low-volume, hands-on work,” Milks points out. By keeping them employed, State Line preserved the deep expertise that enables us to deliver the quality and production that keep our foundries humming – and customers happy.
“We prevented issues by having the right staff in place and ready to go,” Milks asserts. “Many other foundries are having a hard time meeting demands now because of a lack of employees. Their lead times are long, and it’s causing havoc in the industry. In contrast, we’re running smoothly.”
Quality issues are another problem that other foundries are now facing – which State Line has been able to avoid. “Workers who don’t have as much experience are likely to make more mistakes or produce bad castings during the training phase,” Milks cautions. “ It’s a natural phenomena that scrap rates rise as manufactures race to keep up with rising demand. We limit that by retaining and training employees during slower times”
Increased scrap rates result in higher customer costs, quality issues and long lead times – difficulties that State Line has been fortunate to avoid. “With the dramatic upturn in business during the last year, we’ve been able to hit the ground running. Our customers really appreciate that!” he adds.
A demanding niche
State Line’s specialty is low-volume castings – and an ability to manage a large quantity of part numbers. That diversity is another reason why staff experience is essential.
“High-volume foundries may only run ten part numbers a day,” Milks indicates. “We may run 100-plus part numbers through the two foundries on any given day.”
What’s more, many of the parts are often brand new. “Our foundries took on over 250 new parts in the last year – more than one per working day,” Milks recalls. “And those are just new parts.”
Each requires a process for sampling and quality. That’s where the skill of the workers – retained during the tough times – really pays dividends.
“We see different geometries and challenges, much more frequently than a high-volume shop,” Milks points out. “There are many technicalities that we could get hung up on, but our staff has seen them before and they know what’s coming.”
Milks calls this “seeing problems before they become problems.”
“There are challenges that come up once or twice a year, or once every ten years. Our people have seen similar problems before. They know what to look for and can anticipate and solve them faster.”
Milks considers iron casting a science-based process. “But in reality, there’s a little bit of art and a lot of skill involved, too,” he notes. “Having that deep wisdom goes a long way toward our success.”
There is a great deal of experience on the production floors of both the State Line (Roscoe) and Winnebago (South Beloit) foundries.
State Line has about 70 production employees, with an average tenure of 9 years. Winnebago has 45 employees, who have been at the company an average of 11 years.
“It’s a high number, especially when you consider there are a few employees that have been here less than a year,” Milks remarks.
Each foundry has ten employees who have spent more than 20 years at their respective foundry – and several with more than 40 years.
Newcomers are welcome
The management teams skew younger than the foundry staff. Several managers have been with the company for five to eight years. Some in management have been in the industry for 40 years and have spent the last 20 with State Line.
“We have a lot of experience out on the foundry floor, doing the day-to-day, as well as on our management team. We have an excellent mix of experienced and up-and-coming talent,” Milks emphasizes. Many managers were originally college interns who joined the foundries as employees after graduation.
Milks sees good collaboration between workers of all experience levels: “The newer hires bring a sense of vibrancy,” he stresses. “They’re excited to learn and try new things. They’re excited to push the envelope.”
Yet they also listen. “They’re humble and aren’t afraid to ask questions of their more experienced mentors,” he observes.
The combination works well. State Line has increased in-house CAD design and modeling in recent years thanks to the new hires. This technology dovetails perfectly with the wisdom the longer-tenured managers provide.
Milks points to a recent example where a seasoned engineer sketched a casting layout – and a newcomer then produced a CAD design for sand molds to be 3D printed. “That design work is something we wouldn’t have been able to do two years ago,” Milks declares.
This collaboration ensures that knowledge gets passed from one generation to the next. “They work together, side-by-side, for 80 or 90 percent of their workdays,” he explains. “That represents a lot of collaboration to solve problems. That helps maximize the knowledge transfer between them.”
Milks and his management team strive to make sure the workers stay at the foundries.
“I’m confident that we have greater longevity and our turnover is less than most other foundries,” Milks states. “We have low turnover, which is something that a lot of companies in this industry are challenged by.”
State Line offers good pay and benefits, which is a start. Yet retention often boils down to relationships between the management team and the production workers, Milks emphasizes:
“We have great supervisors who train the production workers and work closely with them,” he notes. “The production workers are put in a position to succeed – and they do. We let them know they’re valued, and they gain pride in what they’re doing.”
The foundries also make scheduling accommodations that are fairly uncommon in the industry. “We’re more flexible with our employees,” Milks stresses. “That goes a long way with the younger generation and even those near the end of their career.
“Most young families have two working adults and children. It can be tough for them at times to balance their work schedules, and other commitments. We also have a handful of employees who have officially retired or are nearing retirement and they still want to work on a part time basis. It can be a win-win situation Being flexible results in greater employee loyalty.”
In the end, the longer tenures and retention matter – not just to State Line, but to its customers.
“The experience and expertise of our employees are how we’re able to support our customers in the manner they deserve,” Milks summarizes. “That means high-quality castings delivered on time.
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