WATERLOO — What began as a cold, hard business strategy has turned into a warm welcome to work for some Cedar Valley residents.
Kyle Roed, recently departed human resources manager with MasterBrand Cabinets Inc., a parent company of Omega Cabinets, was facing a serious shortage of workers more than a year ago.
“The participation rate (of employment) in the Waterloo- Cedar Falls area is lower than the state average,” Roed said. “We were around 67 percent, state of Iowa is around 70 percent,” he said, and that equates to roughly 3,500 that “hypothetically should be working, but aren’t.”
After implementing an inclusion strategy, there is now a waiting list for employment at Omega Cabinets.
“The response has been great. It’s made people proud to work here, it’s made me proud to work here,” he said.
Roed tasked himself with finding what was causing the shortage of willing and able workers. Based on his findings, he developed an inclusion strategy that has not only made a positive impact on Omega Cabinets, but has potential to be a model for other companies as well.
“Now, it’s just a very personal passion, and I just want to go out and keep doing this stuff because I’m seeing the impact on the community,” he said.
Roed began by partnering with several community organizations with deep roots in the community, including Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center of Waterloo, Hawkeye Community College and Inclusion Connection.
“I realized that if you look at that data set but then you also look at the unemployment numbers specifically in minority populations, they’re extremely high compared to what we consider non-diverse populations,” he said.
Roed was determined to find the discrepancies, and he did.
English Language Learning
Beginning in February, Omega Cabinets launched an onsite translating program with the help of Hawkeye Community College. The English Language Learning classes allow those who don’t speak English to learn the language, acquire communication skills and be paid at the same time.
“We’ve found a lot of people are very motivated to work, but if they can’t continue to grow those English skills, they’re going to be underemployed,” Roed said.
There are now 10 translators that are considered team leaders who help their co-workers communicate on the job.
“Now that we’ve started to do this, we’ve seen more and more diversity within the languages that are needed,” Roed said.
Translators at Omega speak Marshallese, also known as Ebon, is a Micronesian language spoken in the Marshall Islands, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, and several dialects of Burmese and Bosnian.
EMBARC assisted with involving the area’s Burmese community, including Po Du, who speaks Karenni, one of the Burmese dialects, as well as English.
Du was the first full-time trainer and translator at Omega. He’s now been with the company for a year and a half, has referred 18 other workers and is a team leader.
“I took a chance on Po about a year ago ... he started off very timid and now his confidence has continued to grow. ... And now he’s really seeing this as a career for him and an opportunity for his community,” Roed said. “Talk about a return in investment; just having employees like that makes it all worth it. He’s done a great job.”
The group Du works with has a record of zero turnovers so far.
“Before, I was just cycling through people. I was basically rehiring that entire department every year,” Roed said of the second shift, “which is historically a very difficult shift to staff.”
Getting to work
Roed also found many who wanted to work but did not have reliable transportation, and the city bus stops do not reach Airline Highway where Omega is located, according to Roed.
“This one was pretty eye-opening for me, but it makes sense as I’ve learned more about it,” he said.
Roed partnered with The Loop, a taxi service out of Waterloo, to give passes to employees for their first two weeks of work until they can collect a paycheck.
“It’s a little bit of an investment, but if I can get somebody to work, and keep them, it’s worth it, and that’s been the viewpoint with all of these initiatives,” he said. “It pays off if somebody’s engaged and stays at work.”
Child care shortage
With Roed’s studies, he also found many people have to make a choice to stay at home with their children or go to work and pay for daycare.
Roed added a part-time model for employees with children and for those who want to go back to school. Omega also offers tuition reimbursement.
He also worked with the Inclusion Connection, an organization that helps place individuals who have mental or physical barriers into the workforce.
Roed found that alternating work schedules, workplace setups and rearranging job duties allowed for a more diversified workforce.
“We have seen a decline of 39 percent from 2011-1016 in programs listed with the state, and we have seen total spaces for children in Iowa decline by 10 percent, but we’ve seen population growth increase,” Roed said, referring to statistics from the Child Care Resource & Referral of NE Iowa.
“I’m still seeing four to five people a month that can’t continue to work because they have daycare issues,” he said.
Roed hopes to eventually have a collaboration with other businesses and the state of Iowa to have a daycare center for the employees.
“That’s the next step, because from my perspective, it’s expensive to have to have people quit because of daycare. The numbers speak for themselves, that’s an issue,” he said.
Roed said his journey has been eye-opening.
“But at the end of the day, as I talk to other businesses, it’s really not about charity, it’s not about trying to come up with these community initiatives, it’s really just about doing the right thing and then looking at business results that come out of that,” he said.