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By Joseph Basile, President of Catania Oils

As our company nears its 125th birthday, we have learned that each generation of leadership has its own vision for our family business. Along the way, we’ve discovered that new approaches to our workforce and manufacturing processes can yield noteworthy results. Even amid a global pandemic, investments in people, production and product lines continued to boost our bottom line.

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Long before the pandemic-inspired Great Resignation, manufacturers in the United States have faced what some call the “Silver Tsunami,” a wave of retirements that has hollowed out our nation’s manufacturing workforce, taking out the door decades of experience and often-undocumented mechanical knowledge. For the most part, those departures have not been replaced with a new generation of workers eager to start a manufacturing career, hampered by outdated notions about jobs in this sector. Manufacturers must think differently to build and nurture the workforce of the future – a workforce of opportunities that stem the tide of resignations.

Think long-term

Our company’s number-one core value is “We are family.” My great-grandfather, Giuseppe Basile, started Catania Oils in the early 1900s and treated everyone he encountered like family. How do we bring that spirit to life today? By encouraging each of our 175 employees to think long-term about their lives and careers. Tuition reimbursement for relevant coursework and seminars is part of our benefit package to help them increase their knowledge and their family’s income. 

Someone who starts as a machine operator can go through an apprentice program and become certified as a mechanic, enjoying a considerable boost in their take-home pay. Middle managers attend training sessions on the breadth of knowledge and insight required for the company’s next generation of leaders. Front-line workers take classes on continuous improvement. Our suggestion box on the shop floor (now updated as an online function) fills with messages on ways people imagine we could do things better. We reward employees whose suggestions are implemented with cash prizes and company bragging rights. 

Thinking long-term also means we bring financial advisors to our site in Ayer, Massachusetts, so employees can develop retirement strategies with them. Hourly wage increases awarded during the pandemic also meant they had more to invest. 

We want our employees to live long and healthy lives before reaching retirement, so we host a nutritionist to discuss healthy eating habits, including everything from portion control to savvy grocery shopping. During the height of the pandemic’s health scare, we recognized that coming into the workplace could present a daily struggle. We surprised each family with a catered take-home meal. 

In our family, each generation of leaders has brought something new to our company – and for my generation, we have focused on innovations in both products and operations. 

Secure grants to increase your company’s investment

Because innovations tend to emerge from careful research and projections, rather than lightbulb moments, we have invested in training across the company, tapping the Massachusetts Workforce Development grants that are funded through employer payroll taxes. In 2017-2018, our first award of $229,170 for workforce investments brought new skills and new responsibilities to 56 employees, and we created 10 new jobs.

A second round in 2020, totaling $135,558 in grant funding, built on that first initiative, offering more classes to more employees that delivered value to our bottom line through sessions on preventative maintenance and value stream mapping. 

We paused our third grant application process early in the pandemic, but recently refiled it to bring new operational expertise to our machine operators and management skills for our leadership pipeline. We expect to hire an additional 30 people between now and 2027, and that growth requires plans to develop our employees to take on new responsibilities. Catania Oils is building out competency models for key positions to identify further training needs. 

Expanded facilities for expansive future

Food oil, which requires high standards for its safe production and transportation to our customers, is not without packaging challenges. Looking at how we might rethink our operations, we recently invested in a new production line to make our own plastic bottles. With them, we control the entire process from product quality to packaging to final delivery.

We also looked to the wine industry and adapted its bag-in-box technology for our oil. Taking it to commercial scale, this non-traditional packaging keeps our oils fresher and longer lasting, protected from harmful light and easier to dispense with an external valve.

To accommodate our new production lines and anticipated new hires, we partnered with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Town of Ayer to secure tax increment financing to help expand our facilities with 51,500 square feet of new manufacturing space and accompanying infrastructure. This $14 million project represents our largest single capital investment in our company’s history. 

Lessons learned

How can other manufacturers attract more talent and develop their workforce? Tell your elected representatives how critical workforce development initiatives can be as the reshoring movement gains momentum to support more manufacturing here in the United States. Tap all available state and local funding. Integrate employee input in company operations. Build relationships with local technical high schools. Co-op programs can showcase the excitement of today’s manufacturing jobs and challenge long-held stereotypes. Finally, encourage lifelong learning for your employees. Not only does it support your workforce retention numbers, that investment in continuous improvement will also support your bottom line. 

Joseph Basile is President of Catania Oils, one of the Northeast’s leading processors and packers of plant-based oils including olive, vegetable, blended and specialty oils for bulk, food service and retail.