Indiana Furniture might be more than a century old, but it refuses to act its age, having recently focused energy on such issues as automating its processes and increasing the number of women in its workforce.
Partnerships, internships and a growing young workforce help Indiana Furniture feed the worker pipeline
The company now known as Indiana Furniture was launched at the beginning of the 20th century by local businessmen seeking to provide work for area residents. Today the decidedly 21st century company that started as Jasper Novelty Works still strives to be a community employer and economic driver. Taking this role seriously, the privately owned operation invests consistently in its people and factories, continually updating processes and equipment to keep pace with the times.
Seen as one of the anchors of Southern Indiana’s cluster of office furniture manufacturers (one of only two such clusters in the country), Indiana Furniture is nationally known for office equipment design and production, with showrooms across the U.S. In 2020 and 2021, the Dubois County company received a Manufacturing Readiness Grants award from Conexus Indiana and the Indiana Economic Development Corporation to invest in automation.
Challenges and Solutions
Like advanced manufacturers across the state, Indiana Furniture is looking for workers. To gain an advantage, the company has made a concerted effort to diversify its staff, and bring young people, particularly young women, onto the shop floor through post-secondary programs and internships.
In a state where advanced manufacturing operations routinely have more open positions than prospects to fill them, Indiana Furniture is no exception. It is constantly looking for workers who are qualified or willing to train for increasingly technical positions and the industrial maintenance roles that are integral to an automated workplace. Working to fill these roles has occasionally come with additional challenges, as leaders say some potential employees seem complacent about their jobs and their careers.
Two keys to Indiana Furniture’s response to these challenges have been partnering with Vincennes University’s Career Advancement Program (CAP) and hiring young people, most recently two young women, for industrial maintenance positions.
The CAP program has been helpful not only because it is focused on preparing students to work in industrial maintenance but also because, through seven years of collaboration, CAP instructors have learned to identify students who match well with Indiana Furniture and its work. With the experience and classroom learning students gain in the CAP program, they come to the plant floor prepared to contribute right away and learn site-specific skills. This combination of good matches and eager-to-learn students has allowed Indiana Furniture to work with interns who progress to full-time employment.
Indiana Furniture also has specifically sought to place young women in internships. The company points to two young women recently hired as maintenance apprentices as proof of the concept.
Taylor Henry was studying electronics technology at Vincennes University Jasper when she accepted an internship at Indiana Furniture. Anticipating a classic “busy-work” internship, she was surprised to discover that the company wanted her to jump right in and do meaningful work. “My first day I was putting rollers in conveyers, and within two weeks I was putting control panels together,” she says.
Vivian Galey, a member of the Conexus Rising 30 Class of 2022, says a professor urged her to follow in Taylor’s footsteps and apply at Indiana Furniture, where she also found herself engaged in productive tasks right away. In fact, during her interview for the internship, her supervisor told her that her work there would be limited only by her interests and enthusiasm. “He told me that if I was eager to learn, he would teach me anything,” she says. “He kept his word. I learned a lot more than I ever expected.”
Both Taylor and Vivian praised the support they received from other workers at Indiana Furniture, where they were encouraged, nurtured and trusted to do the work. Vice President of Operations Chad Nord says the young women have taken advantage of the opportunity, embodying the work ethic and eagerness the company wants from new hires. “There are three things you need to do: show up, work hard and be willing to learn,” Nord says. “That’s all we need, and that’s what these two do every day.”
“Having these two in these kinds of roles proves that we’re not the same old company we used to be.”
Attracting a different type of employee requires thinking differently about how you attract potential hires, the kind of experience they have and more. The good news? You just might find pay-offs you had not anticipated.
In its pursuit of the right workers for the right jobs, Indiana Furniture has learned a lot, but one of the biggest lessons, Nord says, is the importance of having the right selection criteria. Knowing the kind of people you want and communicating that clearly to applicants and to partners who can connect you with prospective employees is essential.
The company believes strongly in internships, not only as a way to connect with young prospects but also as a way to see firsthand whether the intern is right for the team and whether the intern likes the work and workplace.
That notion of making things mutually beneficial is important, Nord says. You’re not going to convert good interns into good employees if you only let them do “grunt work” or treat them like they’re not a part of the team. On the other hand, if you make the experience rewarding for the intern, you’ll not only be more likely to get someone who is interested in signing on as an employee, but you’ll also have a productive worker during the internship. Plus, it makes it a lot more likely that they’ll recommend the internship to other good prospects.
Putting all of this together through the hiring of Taylor and Vivian, Nord says, Indiana Furniture has learned that it is also enjoying benefits it had not anticipated. Most notably, perhaps, outsiders are impressed to see women working in maintenance roles, taking that as a sign that the company is forward-thinking and willing to invest in the future. “It’s a differentiator for us,” Nord says. “Having these two in these kinds of roles proves that we’re not the same old company we used to be.”