Breaking down the language barrier
The percentage of Mitchell's population that identifies as Hispanic or Latino may not be large, but it is a group that, for local manufacturers, is significant enough to revamp hiring practices.
Especially in recent years, manufacturing companies in Mitchell have started utilizing bilingual employees to get through the language barrier that often keeps non-native English speakers looking for work from the jobs that manufacturers are almost always seeking to fill.
Lori Essig, the regional workforce coordinator for the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, said that in August, the unemployment rate in Mitchell was 2.4 percent, meaning that pretty much everyone who wanted to be working was already employed.
"It does not necessarily mean that people are employed at their dream job, but it does mean that there are more jobs than people available in our community, and so we need to look for more ways to bring more people to town," she said.
Companies upping their ability to communicate with Hispanic people well enough to employ them could be a way of making that happen. While the area's Hispanic population is a statistically small one, it's one that's growing.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1.7 percent of Mitchell's 2010 population was Hispanic or Latino — more than twice as high a proportion as census data showed 10 years prior.
In Huron, that 2010 number was 9.8 percent. However, based on 2016 data, it's estimated that the Hispanic or Latino population proportion in Mitchell has since grown to about 2.7 percent and to about 11.8 percent in Huron.
Essig said she found that some of the Hispanic people working for local manufacturing companies were commuting from Huron, and that a lack of available, affordable housing may be in part what's keeping people from moving to Mitchell even after finding work there.
Essentially, Mitchell companies have employed everyone available from in town, have begun to hire people from all around the region and are still looking for more employees.
"We're in a growth period right now, and we plan to be for some time," said Brian Hunt, plant manager for AKG. "We really needed an applicant pool that's bigger than what the economy provides right now."
In April, AKG began a conscious effort to recruit people who speak English as a second language, both Hispanic and otherwise. The company began by identifying the bilingual employees it already had, in order to make sure that communication would work well, then began advertising for open positions.
"We are actually geared for all levels of employment. What we're finding is that — and this was our expectation; it's coming true, it's good — is that individuals from the Hispanic community arrived with a generally very strong work ethic," Hunt said.
Since beginning that bilingual initiative, AKG has hired 40 employees. With more positions to fill than there are interested and eligible people in the workforce, the company, like many others in the area, still has more jobs available.
"We started to see a lot of potential candidates come to Trail King to apply for careers that necessarily didn't speak English. So we've had to tailor our business to accommodate them, because we want to grow our workforce," said Clark Breitag, human resources manager at Trail King's Mitchell facility. "Quite honestly, it doesn't matter to us who you are. If you want to learn, we will teach you."
Trail King now has not only bilingual employees in various areas of the company who can bridge potential language divides, but on-the-job training.
"In the past, for individuals to come into Trail King, you had to have experience. With the unemployment numbers as low as they are, that doesn't work anymore, so we've had to change our approach on how we recruit, how we get the people in the door as well as how we train them," Breitag said.
Trail King's welding training program, which trains six prospective welders at a time over a two-week period, has trained a total of 67 people since starting last November. The company is putting the finishing touches on a painting training program, which Breitag said is expected to function similarly.
Breitag also said that while having several HR employees who speak multiple languages has been helpful, the company has been seeking any interested, qualified applicants, not specifically those who are Hispanic and/or bilingual.
"When we were looking to fill a couple positions, it wasn't a requirement we were looking to fill, and it really kind of fell in our lap that, 'Hey, this person speaks Spanish and other languages, so that could be very beneficial to us in the future,'" Breitag said. "We've been adding quite a few people over the last several months, and it's really kind of a mix. There really isn't one single population that is greater than the other."
Essig said she hopes companies will continue to find ways to expand the workforce, and she wants to see Mitchell continue to find ways of accommodating non-native English speakers.
"We're just sort of dipping our toes in the water in Mitchell and finding out if we can better provide services for people who don't speak English as their first language," she said.