Many companies have launched efforts to insinuate their training needs and offer their financial support to colleges, universities and high schools that will help them raise up the future workers they need in a labor-starved economy.
But Thor Industries CEO Bob Martin is among the few so far who have been willing to reach out to elementary schools, teachers and students to enhance appreciation for his company – and help set the stage for recruitment of some of those kids someday.
“We’re trying to look not only at today but also at tomorrow and 10 years down the road,” Martin told Chief Executive.
Thor and its subsidiary brands make recreational vehicles in its headquarters city of Elkhart, Indiana, and throughout northern Indiana in about 170 separate production facilities, and have about 17,000 employees nationwide. Building RVs the Thor way is a highly labor-intensive process, more like building a small house than a car, and so automation doesn’t come in as handy as in other industries.
For that reason – and to address a long-time shortage of qualified workers even before today’s record low U.S. unemployment rate – Martin initiated a program a couple of years ago that Thor calls LEAP (for Learning, Engagement, Achievement and Performance). It hired a community-engagement manager and contacted all schools in a two-county area to ask whether the company could come in and talk about itself and the RV industry with fifth- through eighth-graders.
“I grew up here and I didn’t know much about [the RV industry] when I was in school, Martin said. It’s not something that we really talked about.” Further, he said, talks with school officials reminded him that about half the local kids who graduate from high school don’t go on to college – and, so, may be largely available to work in the biggest industry around.
Under LEAP, Thor takes some of its travel trailers and motor homes into schools. It hired Rick Schutt, director of community engagement, to make “phenomenal presentations to the kids about the industry and opportunities.” Thor helps kids build an RV model out of Legos and hand out Thor t-shirts. Sometimes Martin participates in LEAP activities.
“We let them know we have [assembly-]line people and engineers and accountants and that they don’t have to leave Elkhart to have a career,” Martin said. “It’s pretty powerful.
“The kids come out and they’re truly excited to see the RV. They’ll say, ‘My parent works at the Keystone plant, and this is what they make,’” Martin said. “I didn’t know if they’d scoff at seeing an RV, because – well, they’re kids. You never know what’s going to hold the attention of a fifth-grader.”
Martin said that LEAP has been doing its job of engaging members of Generation Alpha and planting seeds about employment opportunities down the road if they stick around.
“Until you tell them,” he said, “they just don’t know. We’re trying to get the story out more about opportunities in our little community in Indiana.”