Flex-N-Gate to recruit new employees from high-poverty neighborhood

A training program centers on critical thinking and problem-solving activities designed to sort out which applicants have transferable skills. Photo credit: LARRY PEPLIN

The 48213 ZIP code represents one of the poorest areas of Detroit, which is itself the poorest big city in the U.S., according to census data. With a median annual household income of $21,372, almost half of its residents live in poverty.

But that ZIP code is the priority recruiting area for 500 job openings at Flex-N-Gate Corp.’s soon-to-open $160 million factory there.

The auto parts giant, of Urbana, Ill., and owned by billionaire Shahid Khan, plans to begin producing metal and plastic parts for the Ford Ranger pickup in October at the plant in Detroit’s I-94 Industrial Park.

To do that, it must hire and train about 500 workers. And to do that, Khan set his sights on 48213.

In an era where manufacturers are fretting about a shortage of human power and a dearth of technical talent, Khan’s strategy is to reach out to available workers where they live. Flex-N-Gate has received more than 16,300 applications for the openings. Fewer than 200 of them have come from residents of the targeted ZIP code, but the company also is considering other Detroit residents. Forty-eight people have been hired for production jobs so far.

Despite being in the UAW’s hometown, nothing has been said about whether those jobs will be union-represented, and company officials declined to discuss the wage scale.

“Employees at all plants enjoy a collaborative workplace where their input is valued and recognized,” a company spokesman said in an e-mail when asked about the potential for UAW organization at the plant. “We respect their choices.”

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A UAW spokesman said in an e-mail: “It’s the UAW’s policy to not publicly discuss organizing strategy.”

Applicants said they were responding to ads for entry-level wages of $13 an hour, with higher wages based on experience, and 40-cent raises after a probationary period.

“There’s a lot of people who need jobs, and Flex-N-Gate will be good for them,” said Edward Parker, a new hire who lives nearby the plant. “It’s a good opportunity. The wage is going to be what people are really interested in.”

Big investment

The 450,000-square-foot plant is the largest newly built auto parts plant in Detroit in 20 years. And the sheer volume of job openings is getting local attention.

Khan has said he pursued the urban location at the behest of customer Ford Motor Co. and the automaker’s executive chairman, Bill Ford, who has signaled his interest in re-establishing Ford’s connection to the city where it was founded 115 years ago.

As it sifts through the applicants, Flex-N-Gate also is giving priority to individuals with two or more years of continuous work experience and those who have phone numbers indicating they likely live in the county.

The location of the plant along corridors serviced by Detroit and suburban bus transportation lines may be an attraction for applicants who don’t have cars.

“So many of the manufacturing jobs are outside of the bus lines because they’re so far out in Warren, Sterling Heights and Madison Heights,” said Anthony Franklin Sr., referring to communities in the greater Detroit area.

Franklin, who lives in nearby suburb Eastpointe, has been hired by Flex-N-Gate and hopes to work his way into a skilled trades position.

Focus: Hope

To get the local hiring going, Flex-N-Gate turned to the Detroit nonprofit organization Focus: Hope. The agency was created in the 1960s to battle racism and poverty by providing education and skills training to disadvantaged minorities in the city. It assists employers with recruitment and training services and also operates a machinist training institute that is partly funded by the City of Detroit.

The city’s work-force development agency, Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., has budgeted $150,000 to fund Focus: Hope’s Flex-N-Gate training activity, agency spokesman Robin Johnston said.

The supplier’s first 24 hires were sent to Focus: Hope for initial job training, said Karrie Szalony, director of human resources at Flex-N-Gate’s nearby stamping plant in Warren, Mich. A candidate’s prior work experience did not have to be in automotive.

“Even if it’s not auto-related, I want to ensure they’re a reliable employee,” Szalony said. “We can teach you the auto skills.”

Flex-N-Gate also is considering parts workers who faced layoffs from another Detroit auto parts plant, Integrated Manufacturing and Assembly, a seat supplier and joint venture of Lear Corp. and Comer Holdings.

“The market is so tight for talent, that where you can find it, you’re lucky to find it,” Szalony said.

Critical thinking

Focus: Hope’s training program centers on critical thinking and problem-solving activities designed to sort out which applicants have transferable skills, said Bernard Thompson, a work-force readiness instructor for the nonprofit.

On a visit to a classroom of new recruits last month, Thompson told them that Flex-N-Gate wanted people to excel.

“This week is designed for you to demonstrate and for me to upscale you to the point where Flex-N-Gate thinks you’re the kind of employee they think they’re going to be able to move forward their company with,” Thompson told them.

Nick Proctor, director of manufacturing for Flex-N-Gate, also stopped in to address new hires.

Proctor explained that the parts they will make will go into the 2019 Ranger, which Ford plans to assemble at its retooled Michigan Assembly Plant west of Detroit.

Ford has set Oct. 22 as the target for starting production of the Ranger, and Flex-N-Gate has set Oct. 1 for its start of production.

At Focus: Hope, Proctor surveyed the classroom, asking who had experience working at automotive or other manufacturing plants.

Franklin told Proctor he previously operated a forklift.

“So you’ve got some fork-truck driving background? We need some good ones,” Proctor told Franklin. “We’re having trouble finding them right now. So that might be your first job.”

Proctor said hiring would be slow until July and August, when “it will really start to ramp up pretty fast” as the plant’s stamping presses and injection molding machines come online.

“I’ve been through this a few times with new plants, and the first 50 to 100 employees are the most critical,” Proctor said. “You set the culture for the next 300 or 400 that are coming after you. So it’s really, really important that we get it off to a good start with everybody working together and working hard.”

Automotive News staff contributed to this report.

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