The human factor

One fabricator’s take on how to find and retain a skilled workforce


As the economy continues to improve and the skills gap becomes exacerbated, hiring and retaining workers has become even more of a challenge for fabricators. Many companies struggle with increasing competition for talent and the challenges that come with high employee turnover.

Morrison Industries has developed a distinguished culture of respect, teamwork and collaboration to tackle employment issues. This has led to the company’s continued success and growth, including opening a second facility in Novi, Mich., in addition to its main manufacturing facility and corporate offices in Morrison, Tenn.

Morrison Industries is a large-scale fabrication business, specializing in shipping racks for the automotive industry. Jacob Wilson has served as CEO since 2011 and has overseen significant growth of the company, increasing its annual revenue from $11 million in 2011 to an annual average of $25 million over the past three years.

Part of that growth, Wilson believes, is due to retaining top, high-performing people. Wilson has developed a culture at Morrison that engages and develops manufacturing talent.


Sustainable solution

Morrison Industries started out as Morrison Tool & Die in 1979. Wilson’s father, Ron,worked in the automotive industry but had a desire to start his own business. So in 1994, he bought the small tool and die shop. Wanting to focus on fabrication, Wilson slowly phased out the tool and die work until Morrison was doing fabrication work exclusively by 2000.

One of Wilson’s big influences was the drive he witnessed in the automotive business toward sustainability. As the automotive industry began to embrace lean manufacturing, Wilson made his contribution by fabricating returnable packaging that didn’t create waste and damage the environment and offered supply chain optimization.


Today, Morrison Industries produces its returnable custom automotive racks in its full service fab shop. The company has high-definition plasma and powder coating abilities along with 140 welding centers for its extensive MIG welding needs. The high-mix/low-volume nature of Morrison’s custom work relies heavily on manual welding work.

And while most fab shops don’t perform powder coating in-house, “for the customized OEM rack business, it’s a prerequisite,” Wilson says. “It is just an expectation because of the short turnaround times. It’s very difficult to outsource.”

On average, Morrison produces from 250 to 300 racks a day between the Morrison, Tenn., and Novi, Mich., facilities. This is to meet the short turnaround times.

“This is not exclusively build-to-print type of fabrication,” Wilson says. “We do design work and testing. Project management is a big piece of the puzzle. After the company approves the design, we have a very short period of time to design and manufacture fleets of returnable packaging specialized for each individual part.”


Welcome workforce

Another big piece of the puzzle is having a strong workforce in place. “The biggest challenge in our industry is finding the right work force,” Wilson says. “It’s not easy to just replace a person that has the skills and knows the business we are in. We see that as our No. 1 challenge and that is why it is so important to us to keep the culture that we have with our team.”

So where does Morrison find potential hires? The company advertises in newspapers and on Facebook, but the biggest tool for finding perspective employees is the Web-based application system Morrison uses.

“And from there we take a more holistic approach,” Wilson says. “We don’t have a checklist of attributes that we’re looking for in an individual. We’re just looking for good solid people that have a positive outlook and a lot of ambition – and an interest in being part of a culture that is a bit different than what they probably are used to.”

After an employee is brought on board, developing their talent is key to retention.

“The first and biggest part is the on-boarding process,” Wilson says. “Within the first day or so, the management team meets with the new hire. We try to set them up to succeed right away so they have the right mentality and they know what is expected of them from the beginning. We have the standard training from a safety and compliance aspect, but it’s all about opening up that engagement as early as possible.”

From there, it’s just maintaining that engagement to foster a long-term, two-way relationship. And as hard as it is to find skilled workers, it’s even harder to find skilled workers who are leaders, as well.

“Sometimes we have to turn people who are skilled tradesmen into skilled leaders,” Wilson says. “They need that team mentality and to ask themselves ‘how can I make the team better in addition to how can I make myself better.’ They can make themselves more valuable by making those around them better.”


Driving differentiators

Morrison asks employees to be self-driven and self-directed in many ways. Part of this approach is based on its flat management structure. Wilson says they go out of their way to avoid that heavy middle management structure typical of so much of manufacturing.

Another differentiator for Morrison is its accelerated, merit-based pay raise system that breaks from the industry norm of structured, incremental pay brackets. The company does have broad pay policies so workers know what is possible, but the goal is to not put limits on people’s ideas of what they can contribute to the company.

A newer area that Morrison helps employees with is life skills. “We have ongoing training programs where we bring people in to talk about how workers can manage their finances and that kind of thing,” Wilson says. “The company can only do so much – we can’t set their alarm for them. However, our training programs aren’t just about learning about the company, but learning about life skills in general. We started this about three or four years ago. Now that it’s harder to find people to hire, it pushes us to help them more with life skills.”

More than 90 percent of the company’s supervisors are people who have grown into those roles from other places in the company. This aligns with our purpose of improving the lives of the people on our teams and creates a domino effect with a cascade of promotions for people on our team. We only go outside if the company needs a talent or expertise that we don’t already have internally. It gives people, when they join at the entry level, a view of the opportunities in front of them and examples of people with a lot of credibility supervising them.

Morrison’s culture has directly impacted the company’s growth and continuously distinguishes its team within the industry. That growth includes the Michigan facility that opened in June 2018. Morrison plans to employ 200-plus people over the next two years at the facility.

The company was pleasantly surprised to find a high volume of skilled workers to choose from in Michigan. Morrison is a town of about 600 people in a manufacturing-centric area, so it’s an extremely competitive labor market.

So far, Morrison has hired around 30 people in Michigan. Wilson says it has been a consistent pace where about eight to 10 people are interviewed a week; two or three of those people are hired every week.

Morrison plans on keeping the same employee culture at both facilities because it has been such a big part of the company’s success in Tennessee.

“We really try to treat our employees as valuable resources. In manufacturing, the workers often become numbers and statistics, so we work hard to keep that mentality to where they are thought of as an extremely important resource.

“Talent developed in-house is a big differentiator in most businesses,” he continues. “We don’t have any proprietary technology or intellectual property and we aren’t in an industry with high barriers for entry. The one way we can be better is by having a stronger team. It is one of the only resources that can’t be bought. You can’t buy a good employee and a good workforce. You have to work at it, like you do with your customers.”

Morrison Industries

Get industry news first
Subscribe to our magazines
Your favorite
under one roof