MOUNT VERNON — Knox County’s child care and labor shortages are inextricably linked, according to local officials.

Data from the Area Development Foundation (ADF) backs this up.

The organization conducted a survey this spring, involving the county’s top 25 employers and the public, in an effort to better understand the link between employment and child care at the local level.

Of the hundreds of local residents surveyed, over half said they either had family members who cannot work full time due to child care demands (58%) or they had considered leaving their job due to child care needs (55%).

“It’s not so much pay anymore that are barriers to being in the workforce,” Julia Greenich-Suggs, the ADF’s economic development coordinator, said in May. “It’s child care, it’s housing.”

Knox County’s child care shortage is glaring. Results from the ADF’s survey indicate the community would need to triple its current number of licensed child care spots in order to meet the need.

Local officials are working on that: Since results from the survey were made public in May, Greenich-Suggs and ADF Vice President Sam Filkins have begun investigating ways to expand latch-key programs in the schools, reduce obstacles to in-home providers, and create new child care centers.

But in the interim, how could local employers step in to better accommodate parents who want and/or need to work? And how might doing so benefit the employers as well – unlocking a previously hard-to-reach labor pool during a time of widespread labor shortages?

One manufacturing company in eastern Ohio has figured it out.

An idea born from necessity

It all began back in the fall of 2018.

Tusco Display is a custom store display manufacturer based in Gnadenhutten, a village of 1,288 residents in Tuscarawas County (located an hour east of Mount Vernon). They had a new order coming in. And it was a big one.

Home Depot had contracted with the manufacturer to produce a 1,300-unit light switch display for one of its stores.

Teresa Parrish, who worked as a shift supervisor at the time but now serves as the company’s human resources manager, said Tusco knew it had a challenge on its hands.

“We had a very large production order to get done,” she recalled. “And we knew we needed to add help.”

The company’s administrative staff began thinking of new ways to increase its labor force. It didn’t take long to recognize an opportunity.

Tusco’s 110,000-square-foot plant is located in the heart of Gnadenhutten – right across the street from Indian Valley Local Schools.

“We saw people coming to the high school, dropping off their kids,” CEO Mike Lauber told Fox News during an interview this January. “(And we wondered), ‘What are those people doing when they’re not here, dropping off or picking up their kids?'”

Tusco had already formed a relationship with the district. The company and school system had partnered in 2015 to create a workforce development program, allowing high school students to receive real-world, hands-on work experience at the company while also unlocking a new labor pool for the manufacturer.

It started with summertime shifts, then expanded in 2018 to include after-school shifts during the academic year.

Now, Parrish recalled, it was time to get the parents on board.

The company’s administrative team devised a plan. Tusco would establish a new part-time shift, designed specifically for the parents of Indian Valley students.

It would run from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (the company’s traditional full-time shifts run from 6 a.m to 2:30 p.m. and from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.). This would allow parents to drop their children off in the morning, work a six-hour shift across the street, and get off in time to pick them up after the final bell rings.

It would take a great deal of strategy, flexibility and patience from the company’s management and full-time workforce. And it wouldn’t be a cure-all.

But it would help fill the gap. So, the company ran with it.

‘The Mom Squad’

Tusco partnered with the school district to advertise the new line. The district sent out an “all-call” about the opportunity – notifying parents through the same platform it uses to announce snow delays and practice cancellations.

Shortly thereafter, applications came flooding in.

“We had a lot of interest,” Parrish recalled.

The candidates came from a broad range of professional backgrounds. There were former bankers, retail workers, medical professionals and librarians. There were some who had past manufacturing experience, and many who had none.

Nearly all shared one common trait, however, according to Parrish: They were no longer able to work because they had to take care of their children.

“That was one of the key things,” she recalled.

Previous manufacturing experience is not required to work in any of Tusco’s general production positions. Employees must have a high school degree and they must be nicotine-free, Parrish said.

Tusco was able to hire its first part-time line in days. Within a month, the group of 10 employees had completed in-house training and had begun working.

“It did not take very long,” Parrish said. “It took less than a month to get it up and running.”

Tusco’s new line quickly assimilated into the company’s culture.

All 10 of the new employees worked in the assembly area, Parrish said. They were assigned specifically to the Home Depot order.

“It was everything from doing hardware bags to small assembly projects,” Parrish said. “It was wiring small components, doing hardware bags and just assembling other miscellaneous items.”

The group would arrive and leave at the same time every day. Over time, they accrued a nickname: “The Mom Squad.”

“Now they’re our ‘Flex Team,'” Parrish said with a laugh.

What began as a short-term solution quickly turned into a long-term commitment. Even after Tusco completed the Home Depot order (it took three to four months, Parrish recalled, from start to finish), many of the parents stayed on.

Some have remained part-time in the years since, while others have moved to full-time positions with the company, as their children have gotten older and aged out of child care.

The mid-day shift also remains. There are seven workers on the line now, Parrish said, down from a high of 15 this winter (the company employs 60 people total). They all serve different roles within the company; some work in the press room, Parrish said, while others work in the fabrication or finishing areas.

Four years after it was established, Parrish said the line has become an essential part of the company’s operations – particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic, when labor shortages hit the manufacturing industry hard.

“We found it worked very well for us and it was a way to (attract a different kind of worker),” Parrish said.

“Back in 2018, we didn’t have that labor shortage. And then as COVID approached and everything, we saw more of a labor shortage, and that was a way for us to reach individuals that couldn’t typically work in a manufacturing position – because it was that flexible scheduling they needed.”

The new shift has helped Tusco increase production – according to The New Philadelphia Times-Reporter, the company posted “two strong, double-digit years of growth” in 2020 and 2021 – while also filling a need in the community: flexible work for parents with young children.

Parrish said the program has been mutually beneficial.

“I think for us … it’s not so much, ‘Oh, we’re getting people into full-time roles here (eventually).’ Obviously, that’s a plus, but I wouldn’t say that’s our main focus,” Parrish said.

“It’s a lot about helping those in the community that wouldn’t typically be able to have that flexible scheduling and a flexible workplace, and being able to offer that to them. And obviously, that helps with our employment needs as well.”

Challenges and rewards

Parrish noted that not every manufacturer – or employer in general – will be able to execute this strategy.

It’s taken a great deal of planning and patience at Tusco to pull it off.

“A lot of manufacturers struggle with going to those odd shifts,” Parrish said. “It does take a little more time on our end, as far as scheduling and getting things ready for those individuals coming in at a later time.

“We’re having to fill positions for those couple hours until they get there. But it really does work well for us.”

This level of planning is matched only by the company’s flexibility. If employees on the mid-day shift need to call off due to an illness or weather-related school cancellation, they are allowed to do so without risking being fired, Parrish said.

That’s been part of the deal since the beginning, she added. The parent – and their ability to take care of their child – comes first.

“You have to learn to be flexible. Manufacturing is typically, ‘Here are our guidelines, and you need to follow them.’ It’s very (strict),” said Parrish, adding that Tusco does require its part-time employees to work at least 15 hours a week.

“But you have to learn to be flexible. So when you’re bringing in this ‘Flex Team,’ that’s how we’ve promoted it – it’s flexible scheduling, flexible hours, and the understanding that when their kids are out of school, they’re not going to be at work that day.”

This means that if Indian Valley Local Schools has a snow day, shift supervisors and other full-time workers will have to fill the void. It’s challenging at times, Parrish said, given the last-second nature of such situations. But the company has made it work.

“If there’s a snow day, that’s something you’re not typically prepared for,” Parrish said. “If there’s a holiday, that’s scheduled, and you can find child care if you need to. But it’s those last-minute things where the company has to be understanding of that person’s needs, as far as child care.”

The system isn’t perfect for parents, either. When school lets out in the summertime, they’ll need to find daytime child care if they wish to keep their spot on the ‘Flex Team.’

But the whole idea, Parrish said, is to change the dynamic when it comes to work availability and scheduling. Rather than fitting the employee to the employer, Tusco has strived in this program to fit the employer to the employee.

“When we’re advertising for these positions, we really do advertise flexibility,” Parrish said. “That really seems to help, to promote that. It draws those people that are looking for that – who can’t work that standard work week.

“And if it’s somebody that’s able to work – whatever’s going on with their child’s life or their personal life – if they’re able to work three to four eight-hour days, but not the other two (days), we’ll allow them to do that as well.

“It’s just them basically saying what hours they’re able to work, instead of us saying, ‘This is what you have to work in order to be employed here.'”

Parrish said that, to her knowledge, no other manufacturers in the area have implemented a shift like this. And those who have worked on Tusco’s “Flex Team” have thanked the company for providing this unique opportunity.

Brittany Braun, a mother of four boys in the Indian Valley school system, came to work for Tusco after the all-call in 2018. She was on the original mid-day line, and has stuck with the company ever since, working full-time now as a quality technician.

“It’s actually great,” Braun told Fox News in January. She had never worked in a factory before joining Tusco, having served as a stay-at-home mother for a decade prior.

“I’m able to come into work while my husband gets my children off to school. … And then I’m home before they get off the bus to come home,” she continued. “And then I’m able to go to all of their activities in the afternoon, because they’re very active. So it works out great.”

Margaret Affolter shares a similar story. The mother of a young girl in the Indian Valley school system had worked in retail, child care and hospitality – but never manufacturing – before applying to work on Tusco’s ‘Flex Team’ in 2021.

She now works five days a week as a spot welder – and raves about the opportunities her new job has afforded her.

“The hours are perfect,” Affolter told the Times-Reporter in January. “I drop my little girl off at school, then as soon as I get off here, I pick her up from school.

“I’ve been very pleased and blessed with this job.”

Parrish said she hears stories like Braun’s and Affolter’s all the time.

“One individual went from full-time to part-time (with Tusco) through this program,” she said. “Because her children are younger, and they didn’t have anybody to care for them – to make sure they’re getting on the bus or to be there when they were done with school. There was nobody home for them because her husband worked long shifts.”

By shifting to part-time work through Tusco’s mid-day program, Parrish said this individual was able to be there for her children.

“I have another individual that, her daughter is a little bit older, but she’s still young,” she continued. “And she’s mentioned to me several times that, ‘I would never have been able to work (for this level of pay) if it wasn’t for this.'”

Lauber has acknowledged that establishing a ‘parent shift’ wasn’t easy. But he believes it has been worth it – and he recently encouraged other manufacturers to do the same.

“I think the big message from me to other manufacturers is, ‘Why not be more flexible?'” Lauber told the Times-Reporter in January.

“It will give you access to a segment of the population who’s eager and able and in some cases tremendously skilled but may not be able to give you 40 or more hours a week.”

Could this work in Knox County?

Local officials are already thinking about it.

Greenich-Suggs, the Area Development Foundation’s economic development coordinator, said Monday that she spoke recently with representatives from Tusco about the company’s approach.

She came away impressed. While Greenich-Suggs acknowledged this kind of plan won’t work for every business in town, she does believe it might work for some.

“It is difficult, especially in manufacturing because you have to produce a certain amount and you have to plan your shifts to make sure that there’s enough people to produce that amount,” she said.

“It is very difficult. But they figured it out.”

Greenich-Suggs and Filkins, the ADF’s vice president, believe local manufacturers can learn from Tusco’s victories.

Filkins said “supporting employees’ lives outside of work is a growing concern of employees” in today’s labor market, and Tusco appears to have mastered that: The company is unusually flexible in its hiring practices, and it’s also willing to prioritize its employees’ personal lives (in this instance, child care) over productivity.

“It’s a really innovative thing,” Filkins said of the mid-day shift.

Greenich-Suggs and Filkins said that, to their knowledge, no Knox County manufacturers are currently utilizing Tusco’s ‘parent shift’ strategy. There are some who, like Tusco, employ student workers on split shifts – Replex Plastics in Mount Vernon has an after-school partnership with the Knox County Career Center, Filkins said – and some who employ semi-retired workers via the same strategy.

But there are none who specifically target the parents of school-age children.

“I think that some (local manufacturers) are starting to think through those things,” Filkins said of targeted split-shift strategies. “This would be new, from a parent perspective.”

The ADF is currently working on a toolkit for local manufacturers, which will lay out examples of effective hiring and retainment strategies found elsewhere. There will be an emphasis on non-traditional workers – where to find them and how to hire them.

Filkins and Greenich-Suggs said Tusco may very well be mentioned.

“We’re collecting those ideas, to be able to eventually talk to our manufacturers and larger employers and say, ‘Here’s a solution,'” Filkins said.

“What I would love to see at the end of this is if we could put together a toolkit of, ‘Here are all the different things you could try. You could choose nothing, but you’ve gotta find something that fits you.'”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *