CoorsTek sets up academy to train workers in response to labor shortage

Signs of labor shortages are everywhere. Restaurants have cut their hours, warehouses pile up with products that wait for truck drivers to deliver them and construction projects stretch out for weeks and months longer than expected.

And if it were only about finding help. An estimated 4.3 million U.S. workers quit their jobs in August, or about nearly 3 out of 100 workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The game for employers has shifted from not only recruiting candidates but retaining the workers they have and keeping new hires for the long haul.

“We have been in business a long time, 110 years. Hiring for these positions is nothing new for us. What is new is the approach we are taking to the labor challenges that everyone is experiencing right now,” said Irma Lockridge, chief people and systems officer at CoorsTek in Golden, which has developed a program called CoorsTek Academy.

CoorsTek saw demand for its ceramic products surge as the economy rebounded, putting it in full hiring mode in a difficult labor market. The company, which employs about 6,000 people around the globe, including 1,100 in Colorado, has hired 1,700 workers so far this year and plans to add another 400 in the final quarter.

Labor markets were tight before the pandemic and a little more than two years ago the company rolled out a more extensive orientation program. But the CoorsTek Academy initiative has gone to another level in Golden, and includes a dedicated building to train new hires, technical trainers and dedicated mentors or ambassadors.

Rather than following the usual model of posting a job and trying to find someone who fits the position, CoorsTek recruits candidates who represent a good fit culturally and then lets them scope out what options are available and a say in where they land.

“Rather than hiring for the opening at hand, we are hiring for the skills based on the future of our workforce planning needs. We will place them as we go based on their interest levels and our skills need,” Lockridge said.

So far, the program has smoothed the transition of new hires, reduced turnover and boosted retention, which has allowed the company to find the help it needs to meet the additional business it is getting, she said.

Matching the right people in the right jobs, ones they feel they have had a say in selecting, should improve productivity, boost job satisfaction and contribute to tenure or “stickiness” as Lockridge describes. It is an antidote in a period some are calling the “Great Resignation.”

With the help of technical trainers like Aaron Erkman, new hires tour different departments and plants and job shadow to help them develop a sense of where they think they might belong and where they might want to head in the future.

Erkman, a former teacher, got started with CoorsTek in Grand Junction, relocated to work in Golden, and then moved to Arkansas. He jumped at the chance to become a trainer when the openings came up last spring.

“We needed to be more nimble. We have to change the game on the attrition situation,” Erkman said. He also credits management for realizing the more of an investment that is made on the front end with a new hire, the greater the rewards on the backend.

Even with the initial screening, not everyone who enters the academy finds the right position. About three out of 10 hires don’t make it all the way through. But that isn’t necessarily a negative in that it saves time and money for both the company and its prospects.

For the majority of hires who do complete the academy, getting familiar with the various departments and production facilities helps them visualize a career path, Erkman said. The academy also helps them understand why their work matters.

“We are giving people the opportunity to see the big picture of the company, a lot of the technology that goes into our process from start to finish, the supply chain, and how the products are making people’s lives better. They realize they are part of something bigger,” Erkman said.

Once new hires land a spot both they and management think is a good fit, they are assigned an “ambassador” or a mentor, to help them acclimate to the job, and not just how to master a particular machine or task, but also the more subtle things like finding out where to get a cup of coffee or how to request time off.

Arvada resident Michael David Mestas said his co-worker didn’t stop at showing him how to use a grinding machine he operated. He tore it apart, reassembled it, and had Mestas do the same, helping him learn it inside and out.

“I am a hands-on person and wouldn’t have figured it out from a book,” he said.

Mestas, who joined the company a month ago, said the extended orientation the academy provided, including meals with other new hires, backed up a strong message the company communicated about joining a family, something that resonated with him after years in the trucking industry.

In one job in the oil fields, he would work 20-hour shifts with four hours for sleep. While the pay was good, the demands were grueling and everything else in his life suffered.

“They didn’t care if you wanted to go home and see your family. They just wanted that oil. That’s when I learned you can sleep standing up,” he said.

Darryl Brewer, a Denver resident, came to CoorsTek with 20 years of manufacturing experience with six different employers. He said he knew for the first interview that this opportunity would be unlike any he had before.

Eight people were at his interview, including long-time employees. They all stood and greeted him when he entered the room and asked questions. After getting hired, he received a welcome letter and calls of congratulations from all of the people who interviewed him.

Brewer said manufacturing is a tough field to work in, with automation and offshoring to cheaper locales a constant threat. At his prior job, the workers were constantly on edge. The plant was missing its deadlines and people were afraid of getting fired and surly with each other.

The mood was negative and draining and he brought the stress home with him, affecting his family and the time he spent with his children.

“I showed up to the training facility and was welcomed with open arms,” he said. “Everybody in manufacturing was happy. They were greeting each other, helping each other. I thought I was dreaming.”

A big confirmation for Brewer that he made the right choice came when he helped meet an important order. The customer personally came in and thanked the workers involved, something he had never had happen before.

“Your job affects you in your life. It affects you everywhere. My energy level has gone up. Every day I feel strong,” he said. “I am not the person I used to be where I was moody and didn’t want to get up and go to work.”

Although CoorsTek Academy is new, the value the company, in its fifth generation of family management, places on its workers is part of its culture, Lockridge said.

“You win by creating the experience and sustaining it, by treating everyone like family members. We really want people to feel that way and that sense of belonging is part of everything we do,” she said. “That is why we are seeing the success we are seeing in such a tight labor market.”

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