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Ariens: Wisconsin faces worker shortage

By Ed Byrne

The Brillion News

STURGEON BAY – In a speech to the annual meeting of the Door County Economic Development Corporation, Dan Ariens explained the importance of his company’s ties to the Brillion Public Schools.

He did it within the context of a topic that’s getting a lot of attention in Wisconsin lately: the inability of the state’s business sector to grow because of a shortage of workers.

The Door County group asked Ariens, President and CEO of the Ariens Company, for ideas on how to grow a workforce in rural Wisconsin.

“At Ariens Company, we are in a small town [and] we want people to care about what they do every day when they come in to work every day – we want them to want to be there,” he said.

Right away, that filters out some applicants.

Ariens described his company as a four-generation family business dealing with a world economy – a company that needs to stand out in a field of various competitors.

The company has a philosophy of “lean manufacturing,” which he described as emulating Toyota’s manufacturing culture.

“We have some behaviors we expect in all of our employees,” Ariens said. “What we are looking for is the balance between great cultural fits with our company and someone who’s a really a strong performer.”

In short, that’s someone who can excel individually while also working well within a team.

Ariens said the company can work with an employee who is short on individual initiative but works well on a team. It can’t work with someone who doesn’t work well within a team or individually.

An important revelation came to the Ariens Company about 16 years ago, Dan Ariens said.

“We weren’t seeing the kinds of young people who came out of Brillion High School look to us as an employer of choice – and we needed to find out why that was happening,” he said.

After meetings with school officials, Ariens said it was clear that the company needed to communicate “who we were” better. Those meetings, Ariens said, also convinced the company’s leaders that it needed to know the local schools better.

“It was eye-opening, because we found out that they were very interested in being more engaged with us,” he said. “We just weren’t really paying attention.”

Ariens explained that the company made a financial commitment to the Brillion schools for the high school technology education program.

Now it is financially backing the district’s commitment to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education from kindergarten through grade eight.

“In Brillion, Wisconsin, 3,000 folks will have a K through 12th STEM education like nothing else in the country,” Ariens said. “That’s really what it took for our students to look at us and for us to look at them.”

He said the financial commitment Ariens Company made to STEM in the schools helped, but the two-way lines of communication were even more critical.

He said the company began a dialogue with the students who were looking for career opportunities.

Ariens highlighted the internship program that brings high school students into the manufacturing environment to solve problems.

“They may be doing assembly work, they may be doing accounting work, they might be doing marketing work – but at the end of the day we are helping them challenge each other with problem solving,” Ariens said.

He said the program does more than suggest manufacturing as a career choice, and he cited three students coming out of the internship program. One wanted to be an engineer, another wanted to go into manufacturing and the third wanted to become a nurse.

“They learned about themselves and what they wanted to do,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to figure out how to teach young people problem solving skills … We are looking for leadership that can solve problems.”

Ariens drew an example from 2007, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency imposed new standards to limit the evaporation of gasoline from a tank on lawnmowers.

“We got into a pickle where a supplier couldn’t complete the testing. These high school kids did it,” Ariens said.

They also completed the testing on time.

Ariens gave Ryan Geiger, a recent BHS graduate, as another example. He was a top student at the high school but didn’t want to go to college.

“He wanted to work with his hands. He wanted to be a machinist, and he wanted to be a tool and die maker,” Ariens said. “Ryan is now working with us. We hired him right out of high school and he is an apprentice at Fox Valley Tech.”

Ariens said Geiger is an example of how adults need to think about high school students.

Please see the complete story in the April 14, 2016 edition of The Brillion News. 



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