Market Mentors
Darrell Cojocar and Curtis Carskadon

Manufacturers Facing Labor Challenges Find Inclusivity to be a Solution

Jan. 11, 2023
Hutchinson Aerospace & Industry benefits from an inclusion program that employs individuals with developmental disabilities.

READ MORE: Design Insights: Labor Shortage Reaches Crisis Stage; What’s Your Labor Situation?; A WISE Approach to the Problem

Hutchinson Aerospace & Industry, Inc. is not unlike its manufacturing peers suffering the challenges of labor shortages. Struggling to find workers for its Ithaca, Mich. location, the manufacturer of engineered shock, vibration and motion control solutions decided to maximize its workforce by becoming more inclusive in its hiring practices.

Hutchinson teamed up with Mid-Michigan Industries (MMI) to help train and employ individuals with complex needs. MMI is a not-for-profit that partners with organizations throughout central Michigan by providing vocational services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

“There are a lot of steps that go on behind the scenes on both ends to make a partnership like this work, but it all starts with putting the right businesses together,” said David Gnegy, MMI director of Employment. “If a business is interested in starting a program, they should start by identifying different employment service providers for people with disabilities in their area.”

The MMI process is by no means one-size-fits-all; programs are individualized to meet the requirements of the person served. The business and service provider work together to identify the work to be done by the people involved in the training program, explained Gnegy.

READ MORE: Tapping an Underutilized Talent Pool

“Once the scope and available number of participants are established, the two partners can collaborate on job duties and scheduling, just like any other contracted work,” he said. “The main thing to keep in mind from both the service provider and the business involved is to keep an open mind throughout the site establishment phase of the partnership, so that both parties can do their best for the other.”

The initial setup phase and ongoing integration has gone well for Hutchinson. Last November, MMI awarded Hutchinson a 2022 Apex Award as an “Outstanding Community Partner.” This award recognizes an individual or organization that has dramatically improved the quality of services and support for people with disabilities and others facing barriers.

The MMI program supports Hutchinson’s program further by having a job coach onsite to train participants. “Our team is 100% incorporated into the facility processes,” said Darrell Cojocar, MMI’s onsite coach. “They are performing the same tasks as other Hutchinson employees, like cleaning and inspecting parts, applying barcode labels, running presses and handling overload from other operators.”

Hutchinson noted that the partnership is “creating a more inclusive and enriching environment for current and new employees and breaking the stigma that workers with differing abilities can’t be safe in a manufacturing plant.”

What’s Involved Starting up a Program?

Machine Design interviewed representatives from MMI and Hutchinson to find out how the collaboration fosters employment opportunities for employees with disabilities.

Machine Design: Why did Hutchinson decide to collaborate with MMI on this initiative? Was the motivation due to a skills shortage or driven by a diversity and inclusion effort?

Bob Anderson, CEO of Hutchinson Aerospace and Industry, Inc.: There were several motivators in partnering with MMI. The initial need came from a skill shortage, but the motivation came from knowing that MMI aligned with Hutchinson’s vision of “Great People Achieving Their Fullest Potential, Helping to Build a Great Place.”

MD: How is this program funded?

BA: The program is self-funding. Personnel from MMI are part of the Ithaca manufacturing team, helping to increase the plant’s throughput. The MMI program costs are therefore part of Ithaca’s overall standard operating cost.

MD: What is involved in setting up and administering the program?

Brandy Dufrene, plant manager, Hutchinson: The setup of the program began with MMI making a few on-site visits to Hutchinson. During these visits, MMI and Hutchinson defined the scope of work that MMI’s people served would perform. MMI’s job coach, Darrell, was then trained by us, so he could onboard, teach and coach MMI’s people served to complete the necessary scope of work. As for administering this program, it relies on open and daily communication between MMI’s job coach and Hutchinson’s staff.

READ MORE: Transform Manufacturing Education to Boost Productivity

MD: From an employer’s perspective, can you provide a few lessons learned from the program—what works for Hutchinson and what does not?

BA: After 18 months, Hutchinson has learned:

  • MMI’s outstanding coaches and team make the program work very well—their ability to coach and communicate expectations are paramount to everyone involved being successful.
  • At a time when most businesses are struggling to hire enough people, staffing our Ithaca plant to meet customers’ growing demand for Hutchinson’s products, helping people who want to work find meaningful employment and giving employees the opportunity to support their local communities equals a WIN + WIN + WIN. Inclusion and this program have moved Hutchinson closer to being a “Great Place to Work.” The positive organizational morale and pride that this program has helped create is meaningful for all involved.

MD: Darrell, what is involved in your role as a job coach? How involved are you with the employees you coach on the site?

Darrell Cojocar, MMI: I spend 40 hours per week on site at Hutchinson with my people served, each of whom work four-hour shifts each day. For example, one individual in the program has been working onsite since we started the program with Hutchinson. He has increased his skills in the manufacturing processes, reaching his goal of obtaining employment in a manufacturing environment and increasing his independence. It’s a good fit for him because he enjoys making products and knows he is contributing to the team. He enjoys working with all the team members, both at Hutchinson and MMI.

MD: Can you elaborate on what is involved in the process of selecting suitable job tasks for employees with developmental disabilities?

DC: I take the time to identify the interests of my people served, as well as their skill sets, and then select jobs throughout the plant that align with them. My people served take pride and ownership of their tasks and know that they are contributing in meaningful ways to the success of the team.

MD: From MMI’s perspective, can you provide a few lessons learned from the program—what works for Hutchinson and what does not?

DC: So far, we’ve learned:

  • The skills that my people served have developed over a short period of time have exceeded my prior expectations when I started with the program.
  • At this time, we have not found anything that doesn’t work. This is a credit to the open lines of communication that MMI has with Hutchinson. 
  • The purpose and fulfillment individuals gain by contributing to Hutchinson’s bottom line is very rewarding. I’m so proud to see the growth of each participant. This is all possible thanks to the truly inclusive environment Hutchinson has created.

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's WISE (Workers in Science and Engineering) hub compiles our coverage of workplace issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

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