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BE NIMBLE: Bill Hammitt of AmProd Holdings, right, stresses the need to adapt more quickly to change as part of a panel discussion with Jena Holtberg-Benge of John Deere Reman and Matt Morrow of the Springfield chamber.
SBJ photo by Mike Cullinan
BE NIMBLE: Bill Hammitt of AmProd Holdings, right, stresses the need to adapt more quickly to change as part of a panel discussion with Jena Holtberg-Benge of John Deere Reman and Matt Morrow of the Springfield chamber.

Manufacturers: Low jobless rate a positive, challenge

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The local unemployment rate is at its lowest point of the year – 3% in October for the Springfield metropolitan statistical area.

That stat was a hot topic among manufacturing executives during a Dec. 3 Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce event.

“There is a lot of positives going on in our area,” said Bill Hammitt, president and chief operating officer of AmProd Holdings LLC, during a Manufacturing Outlook panel discussion. “We’re hiring and I see signs of other people hiring.”

Hammitt said he learned of the new unemployment numbers just prior to appearing at the chamber event, which was livestreamed this year due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

The Springfield MSA’s rate, though still above the 2.4% mark reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics a year prior, has dropped every month since peaking at 9.2% in April amid the coronavirus pandemic. The unemployment rate was 3.4% in September.

Two other local manufacturers in hiring mode are SMC Packaging Group and SRC Holdings Corp.

Krisi Schell, SRC’s executive vice president of human resources, and Kevin Ausburn, CEO of SMC Packaging Group, both said the 3% unemployment rate was a pleasant surprise. The two executives virtually attended the chamber’s manufacturing event.

However, Schell said the low jobless rate does pose a challenge for hiring companies.

“From the workforce perspective, that means the talent market is going to continue to be really tight,” she said. “We have to stay diligent in our recruiting and make sure opportunities are out there.”

SRC, which employs roughly 1,600 across its 10 subsidiaries, has around 40 job openings in the Springfield area, she said.

SMC Packaging Group’s workforce has increased about 13% since last year. Ausburn said roughly 340 people work for the company, which manufactures corrugated packaging, protective shipping cartons and packaging supplies.

“We’ve hired a lot of people and that’s been a challenge in this environment,” he said, pointing to the combination of the coronavirus pandemic and low unemployment rate.

The company also finished a yearslong expansion and consolidation of operations at 4500 E. Progress Place in Partnership Industrial Center. The $18 million project involved a roughly 270,000-square-foot expansion to bring the center to 415,000 square feet, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“If we didn’t have the space and additional equipment coming online this summer, we wouldn’t have been able to handle the surge in volume that we were the beneficiaries of,” Ausburn said, noting the project wrapped just before the pandemic arrived. “I would like to say it was skill on our part. But I think it was just good luck to be honest with you when the timing of it all hit.”

During the panel discussion, John Deere Reman General Manager Jena Holtberg-Benge said the pandemic placed employee safety top of mind for every manufacturer. However, COVID-19 also should be motivating companies to consider technology investments, she said, pointing to many mornings and lunches spent educating herself about machine learning, artificial intelligence and data analytics.

“Small and large companies have really had to look at restructuring and reskilling their workforce, not only as a result of COVID, but also as a result of just having to compete in this new world,” she said. “Investing in new technology requires those new skill sets.”

Hammitt said the pandemic has sped up the rate of change, as companies need to be more nimble to remain competitive beyond COVID-19’s impact.

“The ability to adapt to new things has really been highlighted by COVID because it did come on so quickly,” he said. “We were all required to change so quickly, but we’ve learned lessons from that. We’ve learned we can adapt faster than we thought we could.”

Both Hammitt and Holtberg-Benge expressed optimism about 2021 for their companies and the manufacturing industry in general.

“We’re excited about the future,” he said. “Your ability to adapt quickly is directly related to the level of success that you will see.”

The Dec. 3 event was the year’s final installment of the chamber’s Outlook series. Chamber spokesperson Jennifer McClure said combined live views of the event totaled roughly 300 on YouTube and Facebook.

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