Farmer Iron
Connecting companies and the future Progress Mfg.
LEARNING EXPERIENCE: More than 200 local teens toured Progress Mfg. during a recent company career night. It was a first for the firm, but offered area youth a chance to learn about what goes on in a manufacturing company. (Photo: Progress Mfg.)

Connecting companies and the future

One Utah company opened its doors to students and got a surprise; would it work in more companies?

For many students, there may be a secret hiding near their homes. That secret may be an equipment manufacturer hiring people with good pay and benefits, but that may not be well known. That's what Progress Manufacturing found out at a recent student career night, which drew more than 200 students in about two hours.

The idea started when a Boy Scout troop asked for a tour of the company's Provo, Utah, facility. But Jed Anderson, company chief executive officer, had a better idea - open the plant to any scout and youth group that might be interested.

Progress Mfg., has two main product areas. For more than 70 years the company has made the Equal-i-zer Hitch, which provides sway-free towing and is popular in the Recreational Vehicle industry. It makes pulling your RV trailer much more steady.

The second product line is the Fastway Trailer Products line which has been growing for much of the past decade. That line includes interesting hitches, and trailer products, including hitch security tools.

But why open the doors to all those kids? "We are in a booming market - the RV business is our bread and butter, but we also spill over into other businesses and we spend a lot of time in the market," said Rich Elliott, vice president of sales and marketing. "We're always talking with dealers and other manufacturers and constantly hear it's a struggle to get people, and get good people."

He explained that the company has done one-off tours in the past, but this time around a more "career night" approach made sense based on Anderson's goal of reaching out to more people. And the company has 43 employees stay after hours on their own time to make the event run.

Students got a plant tour where they learned about the engineering, logistics and product manufacturing going on in the building. For many students around the country, most probably drive by those flat-roofed buildings in industrial parks never knowing there are good-paying local jobs available. With this program, Progress connected with a lot of students ranging in age from 14 to 18 who may never have seen a manufacturing plant at all.

Learning and doing

The event involved the tour and afterwards the company set up different booths for various disciplines in the facility from engineering to assembly. "As usual the engineers upstage the rest of the booths," Elliott noted. "They're always demonstrating how they break stuff, and other things they do. Most of those kids leave thinking they'll want to be engineers."

Of course, that's not how it always works out, but at least the seed of that idea was planted in their heads. And it gets those students thinking about their future a little differently than they may have in the past.

"When I was 15 I don't think I was thinking about those things," Elliott said. "I think we sparked enough interest for them to ask more questions."

And as for questions, Elliott was also impressed with the quality of those queries. "That was the thought our people had after the event," he said. "They were impressed with the quality of the questions from these students. We had primed them a bit during the tour, but they ask great questions. It was a lot of fun."

And that fun is probably a key point. Making a walk through the plant enjoyable is important for impressing on students that work is important, but that people still have fun.

Progress Mfg. isn't a farm equipment company, but what they did offers a lesson for other short-line manufactures (and full-line folks too). Tours are a way to connect prospective future employees with your company. What can they learn? What jobs are available? What kinds of educational choices should they be making?

There's a lot of talk about the future shortage of ag workers in the market. Ag manufacturers know that engineers can work in a variety of industries; but turning on a high-school student to the idea that a farm equipment maker is engaging in top level engineering might spur them to think ag when they graduate. It couldn't hurt.

As for Progress Mfg., chances are they connected with a lot of prospective future employees in one night. Not a bad investment.

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