How A 137-Year Manufacturer Copes With The Growing Skills Gap
One of the biggest challenges facing just about every business today is finding and keeping quality employees. It’s a dramatic narrative shift from the aftermath of the Great Recession where so many people found themselves looking for work.
Now, companies simply cannot find enough people to fill their open positions. That’s especially true in sectors where workers need to have specific high-tech skill-sets, like IT or specialized manufacturing, where it can be especially difficult to find someone capable of doing the work.
Diamond Brand Gear, an outdoor gear manufacturer based in Fletcher, North Carolina, is one of those companies facing a skills gap challenge. The company has been stitching together hardy tents and packs for the U.S. military since 1881. In 1931, they also made the first backpack used by the Boy Scouts. More recently, the company—which split from its retail-centric business, Diamond Brand Outdoors, in 2015—has reintroduced throwback style backpacks and private-label bags aimed at consumers.
Unlike other factories that rely on automation and robots, or who make their products overseas, Diamond Brand Gear’s 70 employees assemble their products by hand inside a 70,000-square-foot factory using high-speed industrial-grade sewing and cutting equipment.
But as the company looks to expand its product line, it faces difficulties in finding people with an exceedingly rare skill: the ability to sew.
“It’s become increasingly hard to find folks who can bring those skills to us from day one,” says John Delaloye, the company’s CEO and part-owner, who originally joined the business in 2005. “So we look for people we can teach those skills to instead.”
Forced to get creative when it comes to assessing candidates, Delaloye dug up a hand-eye coordination exam called the Purdue Pegboard Test that was first used back in the 1940s as a way to gauge whether someone could be a good candidate to teach. Candidates are assessed on how many metal pegs they can insert into holes in a 30-second period using each hand and then using both at once. Candidates are also tested on how quickly they can assemble washer-sleeve-peg combinations.
While this interviewing method might seem somewhat archaic in these days filled with mobile devices and apps, Delaloye says that it also helps set expectations for candidates about what the nature of the work will be like.
“If we can find people who have energy and dexterity,” he says, “then we can teach them to sew. We want them to make things.”
Delaloye takes particular pride in the fact that he’s giving his employees the opportunity to learn a valuable trade skill while earning a living wage, plus benefits.
As workers grow their skills, they also learn about patterning—how to cut fabric and put pieces together in a way that minimizes waste and the number of holes punched into the fabric.
“We are a sewing company but we actually want to sew as little as we can to help improve the performance of our products,” says Delaloye. “Our goal is to make our military-grade tents and helicopter covers as durable and functional as we can. We want our soldiers to stay dry and protected. We can also bring that same edge to our consumer products as well.”
Delaloye says that his company will even repair any product it makes as a way to keep things from wasting away in a landfill.
“We’d much rather help someone keep their existing tent or bag versus buying a new one each year,” he says. “We want to make durable products that are handed down from generation to generation and get stories tied to them. We want our customers to take pride in having products made right here in the U.S.”