Jul 27, 2021

Amid recruiting woes, one Vermont manufacturer is having no problems

Michele Asch is not shy about recruiting.

When she learned that Koffee Kup had shut its doors in April, she went to the baker’s Burlington plant and posted a sign saying Twincraft Skincare was hiring.

“I just wrote a handwritten note and threw some duct tape in the car, and I stopped and put it up on the window,” Asch said, laughing. “And we did have some people from Koffee Kup that applied and we hired some talent from there.”

Twincraft, with factories in Winooski and Essex, stands out for its success in recruiting amid Vermont manufacturers, many of which report they’re having a tough time hiring employees.

“We’re hearing from a lot of manufacturers that it’s really tough to find new additions to their teams,” said Catherine Davis, president of the Lake Champlain Chamber. “Challenges finding staff are inhibiting their growth.”

Davis says the deficits range from entry-level jobs to positions that require experienced technicians to repair machinery on the factory floor. She says one manufacturer reports that half of potential employees who have scheduled interviews do not show up for them.

She says manufacturers are getting creative, looking for employees in immigrant communities where they have not hired before, hiring interpreters.

Twincraft has hired more than 140 of its about 330 employees since the pandemic began in March 2020. All of those new hires represent growth.

“We never laid anybody off,” said Asch, vice president of leadership and development.

'Growing really fast'

Becky Terhune of Colchester, who started working at the company in January, cited the ability to work a morning shift as one reason for her leaving her old employer for Twincraft.

The company has two 10-hour shifts from Monday to Thursday, with opportunities to work overtime shifts on Fridays and Saturdays.

During the pandemic, it spaced out the shifts so that workers from different shifts were not at the plants at the same time. Asch predicts the company will continue the practice.

“It breaks production a little bit,” Asch said. “You can’t keep the lines running, but quite frankly, we’ve grown so much, we don’t have the parking to fit both shifts. We’re really growing fast.”

Asch says skin care has been a booming business in the pandemic.

The company has also benefited from the pandemic by being able to attract employees from suffering service industries, including restaurants and retail.

Rebecca Sullivan of Fairfax used to work at skin care counters at Macy’s, when Macy’s had a department story in Burlington. After that, she worked at the Body Shop.

When she lived in Winooski, she used to walk her dog past the Twincraft plant and was intrigued by the fact that Skincare was part of the company’s name. She did her research and decided she wanted to work there. She started in September. She works as line lead, which means she is in charge of one of the production lines at one of the two skin care factories in Essex.

“This is definitely the best that I’ve worked for,” Sullivan said.

Terhune works as a line lead too. On her production line, among other responsibilities, she makes sure that soap is good enough to be packed.

Nearby, workers weigh a bar of soap.

Terhune came after a friend of a former manager recommended her, but Asch says half of new employees come from employee referrals.

Family business

Asch’s family owns Twincraft. She says they have decided not to sell the company. And that, Asch says, means that those 330 and growing jobs will remain in Vermont.

“There is a high probability that if Twincraft was sold, eventually, it would move out of the state,” she said.

Asch says her family’s decision to keep the company in the family is a selling point to new employees.

“A lot of people that we’re hiring, it’s a big plus for them because they’ve come from other companies that have sold to either private equity or a public company,” Asch said. “So, we’re not doing that, and folks that have experienced that love the fact that we’re not selling.”

Asch is talking over the din of the assembly lines at Twincraft’s Winooski factory, where the company makes bar soap for high-end skin care brands. Wrapped soap bars were coming off the line and workers were placing them in pallets. The interview was punctuated several times by the horn of a loading truck trying to get a VTDigger reporter to move out of the way.

“It’s a busy place,” Asch said. That business, she said, is part of the appeal to potential employees, because growth provides opportunity for people to advance.

‘We’re specialty’

As its name implies, Twincraft calls itself a craft manufacturer.

“We’re specialty,” Asch said. “We don’t do commodity manufacturing.” She says that is part of the appeal to potential employees, too.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, Asch said, Twincraft develops the formulas for its clients’ bar soap and other skin care products in its Winooski lab.

Twincraft manufactures for more than 140 skin care brands. Most of its customers are in the United States, some in Canada. The day that VTDigger visited, a Transport Bourassa truck from Quebec was parked near the loading dock.

Twincraft has a reputation for hiring refugees and immigrants, though the Trump presidency and the pandemic have slowed the influx of workers not born in the United States.

“It’s nearly 25 percent new Americans,” Asch said, “but the valve has been turned down from the federal government, so we don’t have a lot of new Americans coming in.”

Before the pandemic, the company offered English lessons, Asch said. She predicts that those classes will probably resume.

One way Twincraft tries to appeal to refugees and immigrants, Asch says, is by offering one floating holiday so people can choose a holiday in line with their traditions.

Asch cites other ways Twincraft tries to meet employee needs. During the pandemic, the company started reimbursing the cost of fishing licenses. It increased time off. It aims to pay slightly more than the going rate. In addition to health insurance, it joined with three other employers to pay for a health center in South Burlington run by Marathon Health that employees can use at no cost.

The company gives out turkeys at Thanksgiving.

At Christmas, Asch plays Mrs. Claus. Employees can write asking for a gift for a child under a certain dollar amount. The company buys and wraps the gifts. And on a given Saturday, children get the gift they asked for from Mrs. Claus.

Employees can also request up to $500 for a nonprofit or church organization they are involved with.

Housing and child care

Asch says Vermont employers face two big challenges in attracting employees and retaining them: affordable housing and child care.

She sees affordable child care as the easier problem to solve, and her recruiting efforts have led her to focus on it, not just at Twincraft, but all over Vermont.

“Right now, families are paying upwards of 20, 30, sometimes 40 percent of their income on child care,” Asch said.

She investigated whether the company could offer child care. She concluded that it was not a viable business model for Twincraft.

“Parents can’t afford to pay any more and even what they’re paying, it doesn’t cover the cost of quality child care,” Asch said.

After a meeting with Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit organization that advocates for more child care in Vermont, she joined its board of directors and invested much of her time pushing for H.171, the landmark child care law passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Phil Scott in May.

Meanwhile, Twincraft provides two rooms for parents to bring babies between six weeks and six months old to work.

Asch says if Vermont can solve the child care problem, that will go a long way to solving the affordable housing problem, too.

“If child care wasn’t so expensive and people were only paying 10 percent of their income, they’d have more money available for housing,” she said.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org.

 

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