Values Play: Alexandria Industries Meets Labor Shortage The Hard Way

CEO Schabel needs manufacturing workers more than ever, but they’ve got to satisfy standards for integrity and trust.

The pandemic came and may be on its way out soon, but it didn’t change one fundamental thing for Alexandria Industries: The company needs more workers, and needs them badly. So CEO Tom Schabel is trying to navigate Alexandria’s shortage of labor while keeping some other important things in mind, too.

“I’m spending every waking moment trying to figure out how to satisfy customers,” he told Chief Executive.

The manufacturer of extruded-aluminum and plastic injection-molded products based in Alexandria, Minnesota, supplies a number of verticals, ranging from medical devices to recreational equipment to solar-energy components. It employs more than 600 people at five locations in Minnesota, Indiana and Texas.

Schabel was desperate for workers before the coronavirus, especially after a 2016 plant expansion in Alexandria increased potential machining capacity by 50 percent — but the company couldn’t find enough qualified workers to take advantage nor offset continuing attrition among retiring workers. He was working with local technical colleges and high schools to little avail.

Then the coronavirus hit. Alexandria had a number of customers that made medical ventilators, so Schabel redeployed workers from products for markets that had been idled by Covid-19 and put them to work on the ventilator line. “It was a challenging time, but it was that rallying feel to say, ‘We can get this done because we have to,’” he recalled.

Of course, ventilator demand plateaued as the devices came into relative disfavor for treating the virus. But by that time Alexandria faced surging demand in other verticals, including products for boats, trailers, docks, lifts and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), as Americans turned to the outdoors.

“Spending in that area has been extraordinary,” Schabel said. “We can’t make products fast enough for the ATV market.” Simultaneously, firearm sales rose amid the urban unrest and political tensions throughout 2020, and Alexandria tried to meet that demand. “We’ve got customers whose traditional backlog now is 3X or 5X that amount,” he said.

After all the additions and subtractions to Alexandria’s production equation, the company has hired another 50 people recently and has openings for 50 more. So Schabel is getting even more purposeful about recruiting employees. “Training and retention are what we’re really focused on now, so we can put ourselves in position to be more nimble, and keep the workforce we have so we can build from there going forward,” he said.

To that end, Alexandria has added measures such as a social-media recruiting campaign and more internal coordination between its HR and marketing departments.

“How do we get an audience that isn’t obvious to us?” Schabel said. “Technical colleges and universities will have interested parties. But how do we use social media and other avenues to get the audience who wouldn’t normally think about running a CNC machining center?”

At the same time, Schabel takes care to recruit for values that are consistent with his Christian faith and the company’s faith-based culture. Alexandria guards against religious discrimination in hiring but does seek values such as “integrity.”

“Integrity brings trust; trust brings lasting relationships; and when you have lasting relationships, you can get through almost any problem,” Schabel said. Rather than ask recruits directly about religious affiliation or even moral values, he said, hiring managers use “interview questions that poke at” revelation of values.

“We ask people to put themselves in certain situations and answer, ‘What would you do about this?’ You can’t always tell anything from those answers, but sometimes people will take shortcuts because they think something isn’t a big lie, or it isn’t a big deal.”

At the same time, while Alexandria doesn’t communicate expectations of employees to embrace or even display Christian values, he said, “We do tell you what you can expect from us,” Schabel said. “Biblical values such as honesty and caring are attributes that almost anybody would appreciate. We try not to come from a Scriptural basis but from an action basis: How does that look? How do we act that out?”

But Alexandria isn’t just counting on hepped-up recruiting to solve its continuing labor shortages. Automation increasingly is coming into play as well.

“Not Covid-related, but Covid-exaggerated, is the fact that we’re automating everything we can,” Schabel said, “partly just due to the fact that we can’t find enough people.” Alexandria is focusing on eliminating repetitive manual tasks “to take the boredom out and also guard against motion injuries.” Also on the target list: manual tasks that involve dangerous contacts such as hot metal.

“Now we’re trying to have our employees manage the process rather than make the part,” he said, such as integrating robots to feed aluminum extrusions into CNC machines, which humans used to do. “That machinist now oversees a cell of three to five machining centers with automation. They’ve increased their skills in programing robots and CNCs and manage cells, and now they have a much closer line of sight to customers and customer demand.”

Yet, Schabel noted, in getting ahead of its labor shortage, Alexandria is “probably our own worst enemy somewhat, because we hire for values and we train for skills. If you don’t quite have the skills, we can train you for that, but values are very crucial for us. If we can find someone who has values alignment, the chances of success for us and them go up dramatically.”