I finally crossed over to human resources – personnel, at the time. I achieved the goal I set out to attain with my college degree. While it took me nearly nine years to climb the rungs of ladder, it was a good climb. The experience I brought along with me to Frequency Engineering Laboratories (FEL Corp) was priceless, indeed. I arrived, not as a “wet behind the ears” recent college grad with book knowledge, but rather as a seasoned professional with maturity and a developed understanding of business and people skills. I may have required some specific training, those life experiences I brought to the table enabled me to benefit and contribute at a much higher level. It was necessary for success and it was all good.
FEL was a great company at which to begin a career in human resources. They were a large and well established company, but not so full of themselves that they failed to appreciate and welcome the energy and creativity of an outsider with new and different ideas. FEL for all practical purposes, served as an experimental laboratory for my creativity and that was just what the doctored ordered for someone like me.
The company I am speaking of was one of the largest privately-owned companies in central New Jersey, but few knew that. Among its many divisions and subsidiaries around Monmouth County, were concerns involved in defense subcontract engineering and responsible for the manufacture of radio transceivers, Missile Warheads and countermeasure devices.
Other FEL concerns subcontracted various commercial ventures with IBM and the manufacture of plastics products such as consumer video cassette storage modules. FEL had a very diverse business focus that required both highly specialized professionals and technicians (under-water acoustic engineers and CNC machine operators) and semi and low skilled operatives (machine shop production workers and assemblers), many working part time for minimum wage. The former was often difficult to locate and appeal to. The latter was difficult to recruit and even harder to retain.
The ownership of the company was never very interested in having a community persona outside of its fenced in complex on lightly travelled Central Avenue in the sleepy, agricultural community of Farmingdale, NJ. It was located off the beaten path, so to speak. Most local neighbors had no idea what the company was or what it was doing. In fact, for years the company had no sign on its property.
During a major labor shortage in the late 1980’s which lasted into the early 1990’s, FEL averaged over 100 unfilled and available job openings per month. When I arrived on the scene as an employment specialist, I was pretty much the only full time employee focused strictly on recruitment. The workload was remarkable, but I saw it as an exciting challenge.
Learning the many diverse job descriptions at the company was a consuming job in itself. Many of the military contract requirements called for very specialized engineers that were not commonly found in central New Jersey or even throughout the northeastern United States. Even when discovered, it was very difficult to convince them to uproot their families and leave an area of the country with a cheaper cost of living to take a job in an area that offered little chance of replacing that job if ever laid off.
On the manufacturing side, trying to find trained and experienced machinists, chemical platers and other sheet metal specialists was nearly impossible in a state that had already been bleeding manufacturing jobs years. Not even the local vocational schools were producing these types, so the alternatives were few and included either trying to bring such people out of retirement or to recruit in other states like Pennsylvania or Ohio to get them. We went as far as England to recruit experience CNC machine operators, when we could fine none in the local area. Housing was found for them to help expedite the process of getting them to Farmingdale.
As for the unskilled labor, that was a huge challenge. The company’s contracts were priced so competitively that we were unable to employ very many full time employees at more than a minimum wage that was still well under $5.00 per hour in the late 1980’s. Most of the jobs we offered for assemblers paid that wage for four hours worth of work and for most, was hardly worth the effort of showing up for work daily. Turnover was well over 300%. The need for replacement was constant to successfully meet production demands.
On the government contract side of the business, the production jobs were unionized. The pay for these union employees wasn’t much better than for the non-union employees on the commercial side. Though most of the union jobs were full time and eventually offered health benefits, the lower wages were further reduced, not only by income tax, but also by union dues. As “unborn” union members still on probation, these employees paid their dues receiving little or no collective bargaining representation until their seniority increased. Turnover was very high here, too – despite the future promises of on the job training and advancing in position through the negotiated bidding process.
My plate was surely filled and my position required as much energy and perseverance as know-how. It was often discouraging having filled thirty jobs in a week, only to find that the net gain was actually a loss due to quitting and terminations. Many of the lowest paid workers would start a job on a Monday morning and not return from lunch. It was just part of the expectation and a fact of life at the company. I was often told to “get the shovel” and bring in more help.
Never the quitter, I studied the patterns of hiring and researched the issues on the job and the pockets of labor available to the company. Working with others at the company we laid out independent recruiting strategies for the many levels of employment we had to recruit and retain. For many of us – including me – these were “uncharted waters.” I like uncharted waters, because that’s where the status quo ends and the creative thinking begins.
The challenges were met head on and efforts we made paid off in ways that put the company on the map and distinguished me as a recruiter “who could find good people under rocks,” according to a Vice President of the company. In the next part, I’ll share what we did to succeed while under the gun.