Brett Elliott found inspiration in an unlikely source when he was crafting a solution to the shortage of industrial technicians in the U.S. It was the traveling nurse industry that guided him as he laid the foundation for the company that would become Skillwork.
Based in Omaha, Nebraska, Skillwork places industrial technicians—from mechanics to experts in high-level automation—on temporary assignments at production facilities around the country, similar to the way traveling nurses supplement the workforce at hospitals and health systems.
While it is an established model in healthcare, it has taken work to advance it in manufacturing, says Elliott, who spent more than three decades in food production industries before launching Skillwork in 2018. He is the company’s president and CEO.
“The problem was obvious. The solution was not,” Elliott says.
Despite the educational challenge, the company has grown steadily. Skillwork now places more than 160 skilled industrial technicians and expects to be approaching 300 by the end of 2024, Elliott says. Many of its more than 60 clients are in the food and consumer-packaged goods industries.
Clients have their own HR departments and talent acquisition teams. But they usually have multiple responsibilities. They may be looking for everything from janitors to salespeople. Skillwork is focused on finding industrial mechanics, and it casts a wider net, Elliott says. HR departments tend to focus on their local markets, while Skillwork draws people nationwide.
Workers typically sign six-month contracts and are considered employees of Skillwork. “They just like the opportunity to take their skill set and use it,” Elliott says.
Feeding the Idea
Flexible packaging companies, like other manufacturers, are no strangers to a shortage of skilled workers. Trade groups have been warning for years that retiring baby boomers could leave millions of factory jobs unfilled if companies are unable to attract the next generation of talent.
Automation and robotics have helped to address the challenge on the front lines of manufacturing. However, companies still need people on the floor to fix things that go wrong, says Elliott. “Those people are hard to come by.”
Efforts are underway to draw younger people into manufacturing, in part, by emphasizing its modern, high-tech environment. “That’s all great, and we all need to be doing it,” Elliott says. “But that is a tomorrow solution for a today problem. It is a long play to get a kid out of junior high right now to be trained and working in your facility.”
The idea for Skillwork came out of Elliott’s firsthand experience managing food manufacturing companies. “We just continued to see this growing need for maintenance staff,” he says.
He also was hearing from other executives facing similar challenges. “Those things all just kind of fed the idea,” he adds.
Narrowing the Focus
When Elliott founded Skillwork, he forged a partnership with Tim Raglin, a retired Navy officer who was working at the corporate headquarters for Union Pacific at the time. Raglin, chief operating officer at Skillwork, focuses on the operational side of the business.
The two initially saw Skillwork filling skilled jobs in three industries: manufacturing, field service, and construction. Because they needed to educate clients about their model, Elliott and Raglin quickly decided to focus on one sector. “We felt manufacturing was our best area to double down in,” Elliott says.
Client education most often revolves around helping potential clients see that Skillwork is not a traditional temporary agency or head-hunting firm, he says. Rather, it is a new approach to the skilled worker shortage, one Elliott believes more companies will need to embrace. “This is what we believe is the new normal—that if you’re going to have talent, you’re going to have to open your spectrum to how you’re going to solve this problem,” he says.
Once the company settled on its focus, Skillwork had to navigate the similarities and differences between manufacturing and the traveling nurse model that served as a guide.
Skillwork and traveling nurse companies give people the flexibility to travel to new places while working. And employers understand the premium to obtain these workers is offset by their own reduced costs of onboarding, training, and retaining full-time staff.
However, nurses typically have standardized training as licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, and certified nursing assistants, Raglin says. Skilled tradespeople may have common titles, such as master electrician. But their training can be highly variable from state to state, city to city, and union to union, Raglin adds. “There is no clearinghouse of standardization,” he says.
In response, Elliott and Raglin developed a vetting process to ensure clients are receiving the skilled workers the company is advertising. The process also helps Skillwork match its people to a client’s specific needs, Elliott and Raglin say.
Traveling nurse companies also aggressively recruit new staff. Most of the people coming to Skillwork apply on their own, Raglin says.
Nearly three-quarters of the people placed by the company renew their six-month contracts, Elliott adds. “They’re not nomads.”
They are just interested in exploring new terrain, and they appreciate the respect shown by the staff at Skillwork, he says. That respect reflects the three values that inform Elliott’s and Raglin’s leadership of the company. They aim to bring honor to God, bring value and respect to the skilled trades, and measure their success by the number of people they impact positively.
Skillwork itself employs about 40 people, from recruiters to support staff.
Older and More Experienced
Elliott and Raglin envisioned Skillwork attracting younger workers in their 20s and early 30s, people they expected would gravitate toward a model of shorter-term work in a variety of places.
“That has not been the case at all,” Raglin says.
Rather, the typical Skillwork hire is an experienced maintenance person, around 45 or 50 years old, an empty-nester or close to being an empty-nester, who is looking for something new, he says.
And as it turns out, seasoned veterans are what clients are looking for.
“They don’t want a brand-new person out of tech school,” Elliott says. “They want somebody that can come in with experience and go.”
Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.