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Business North - Around The Region - Duluth & Superior Newspaper
Wisconsin preps for influx of jobless Polaris workers
Fifty-five communities are sweating out the decision by Polaris Industries to soon close its Osceola plant, rendering jobless the 515 permanent and 100 temporary employees who reside in towns and cities surrounding the facility.
Minnesota-based Polaris announced in May it intends to close the plant and move operations to Monterrey-Saltillo, Mexico. It will continue to make motorcycles in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and snowmobiles in Roseau, MN. The company expects the Mexico facility to be functional by next year, with the move being completed in 2012.
Polaris gave no hint it was planning to relocate to another country, said Neil Soltis, village of Osceola administrator. Hint or no hint, local officials are still left scrambling to find ways to assist workers who face layoffs.
“Since there have been no layoff notices and Polaris has added roughly 100 part-time employees, I don’t think the reality has hit,” Soltis said.
Polaris says it’s leaving Osceola to manufacture recreational products closer to high-demand markets in the southern United States and future global markets. The move, says a company news release, will provide “significant savings in logistical and production costs.”
The Osceola operation comprises three buildings having a cumulative 340,000 square feet. They’ll either be sold or shuttered.
Polk County will offer displaced workers a variety of resources through the transition, said Soltis, who directs the Vision 600 Steering Committee. Its goal is to create 600 new jobs during the next two years. At a Sept. 24 meeting, the committee unveiled future workforce retraining plans including a worker assistance center at the Polaris plant, Trade Adjustment Act orientation sessions, manufacturing skills enhancement, entrepreneurial training and work readiness certification. The Department of Workforce Development in Eau Claire is focusing on evaluating and testing Polaris workers to determine the best way to assist them, said Steve Blodgett, job service representative.
“Our goal is to get their skills sharpened so they can get back to work,” he said. “We’re trying to get people’s lives back on track.”
Toward that goal, the Department of Workforce Development will test and evaluate Polaris employees to determine their skill levels and help them decide which direction to go for work – retraining or preparing for an entirely different career. Employees will receive assistance in job searching, resume writing and interviewing.
The average age of the affected employees is 42 and the average length of service is 12 years. Education levels vary, Blodgett said, with some having four-year degrees, some two-year degrees and others who lack a high school diploma.
“We want to make them the best candidate they can be,” Blodgett said.
The Trade Adjustment Act provides assistance when jobs are moved to another country. Persons deemed eligible may receive training for new occupations, reemployment services, relocation allowances, job search allowances and training allowances. Federal approval of the application for trade assistance is pending, Soltis said.
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College is studying how to help employees train for new careers or enhance existing skills. Bob Meyer, WITC president, said initial assessments have shown workers desire assistance to improve their math and communication skills.
“Polaris is really the predominant employer there,” Meyer said. “We obviously have a very heartfelt concern and want to do what we can.”
Polaris has not announced its layoff schedule, but could begin by spring. The lack of a formal schedule has complicated the task of assisting workers. Nonetheless, WITC is reviewing options such as business planning assistance, coursework and career analysis. The Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Network and the Small Business Development Center at UW-River Falls are also helping in this effort, Soltis said, and many workers have indicated interest in starting their own business.
“We are very optimistic there will be opportunities for employees down the road,” Meyer said, adding there is “substantial demand” for machinists and welders in Wisconsin. “Even with the downturn, we are seeing a need for skilled workers.”
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