Flexible Work — It's Not Just for Office Jobs

Minnesota manufacturing firm PlastiCert thinks outside the box to prove flexible workplaces aren’t only for professional firms.


For decades, economists have signaled alarm bells for the U.S. manufacturing industry. The sector as a whole has a well-documented skills gap and shortage of workers with an estimated 2 million manufacturing jobs likely to go unfilled over the next 10 years. Manufacturing also has a reputation of being unlikely to provide strong workplace engagement or flexibility initiatives, which can exacerbate problems with recruitment and retention. “When one thinks of the manufacturing industry, machine operators and assembly line workers come to mind — jobs that are typically seen as antithetical to flexibility. Production lines require that all ‘hands be on deck,’ so that tasks can be performed sequentially,” notes the 2008 Families and Work Institute report Workplace Flexibility in Manufacturing Companies.

But PlastiCert, Inc., a Lewiston, Minnesota-based custom plastic injection molding company, is bucking that reputation and mitigating employee shortages with a focus on creating a flexible workplace and pursuing dynamic recruitment tactics. And the company is winning accolades for its efforts.

Two key tactics are paramount to PlastiCert’s ability to provide the workplace flexibility that challenges some manufacturers. The first is a devotion to cross-training, meaning that each PlastiCert employee is trained on every machine. The second is the implementation of the cellular manufacturing model — a type of assembly line formation where related tasks and machines are grouped together, in cells, and work is processed using “one-piece flow.” As opposed to large-lot manufacturing, where products are processed in batches and all items must complete step one before moving to step two, cellular manufacturing and one-piece flow is a lean approach that allows individual items to move throughout the process more quickly, substantially trimming production times and resource needs, such as storage and labor. Combined, these methods ensure the firm is operating as efficiently as possible to meet customer demand, with a pool of employees capable of doing each job.

According to a profile of PlastiCert in the When Work Works Guide “Workflex and Manufacturing Guide: More Than a Dream,” “Cellular manufacturing combined with cross-training increases employees’ understanding and ownership of the manufacturing process thereby improving product quality and rate of return. It also protects production systems from being halted because an employee is unavailable as would happen in a production line. In return, the company can be more generous with time-off policies because the plant can keep operating when someone is out despite a lean workforce.”

When remarking on their selection as a 2016 When Work Works Award recipient (it’s the firm’s second time winning the designation), President and Owner Craig Porter said, “We were confident the improvements we made would help keep us at the forefront of progressive companies. Our co-workers are the key to making us a great manufacturing service organization. Recognizing that their focus can shift between work and home, and being able to help them navigate that, makes the organization all the more resilient and effective.”

As Porter sees it, adherence to these methods not only results in cost savings, but also drives employee morale. “We have taken steps to offer a workplace that both engages and exercises the interests of our coworkers. Cross training and a constantly changing production schedule provide variability to a job that is often described as repetitive and boring,” he wrote.

Pursuing and winning workplace awards is no accident at PlastiCert — it’s part of their recruitment strategy. As Porter notes, “Our past awards and continuing efforts are the cornerstone of our keeping all of our workplace talent in place AND attracting the new talent we need. We feel having an award-winning culture will augment our search for talent by bring people to us as they look to make their work and home lives as rewarding as possible.”

PlastiCert also has a long history of working with the local high school and technical college to promote their firm and the manufacturing industry. This has included creating part-time jobs specifically designed to attract college students, especially future engineers. These programs create a win-win where students get work experience and a higher wage than many comparable part-time jobs in the area, while PlastiCert maintains a workforce to meet growing business needs and gets a leg up on recruiting future engineers.