Dawn Juen was afraid she might have to leave her job after her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor three years ago.

Numerous appointments at medical centers near and far, including a six-week stint in Rochester, Minn., added up to a lot of days off work -- more than Juen thought any employer could be reasonably expected to accommodate.

But as it turned out, of all the things Juen needed to worry about during that difficult time, her job was never one of them.

A longtime employee at BTD Manufacturing in Detroit Lakes -- she’d been there for 13 years at the time, 16 years now -- Juen told the Tribune in an interview last week that the company was “amazing” to work with during her daughter’s treatment and recovery.

“They were wonderful at letting me take time off, they had benefits and they helped me out with that … and I could come in early to get my time in,” she said. “Without their flexibility, I would not have been able to continue working.”

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Juen is happy to report that her daughter is doing well today.

Dawn Juen is a quality auditor at BTD in Detroit Lakes. She's been with the company for the past 16 years, in roles ranging from machining to assembly. The company's flexibility with her schedule, she said, has been crucial to her ability to keep working there in tough times like the pandemic, or three ago when her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The company has been touting its flexible scheduling options, extensive training opportunities and competitive pay and benefits as it seeks to recruit and retain more women into its manufacturing facilities. (Submitted Photo)
Dawn Juen is a quality auditor at BTD in Detroit Lakes. She's been with the company for the past 16 years, in roles ranging from machining to assembly. The company's flexibility with her schedule, she said, has been crucial to her ability to keep working there in tough times like the pandemic, or three ago when her daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The company has been touting its flexible scheduling options, extensive training opportunities and competitive pay and benefits as it seeks to recruit and retain more women into its manufacturing facilities. (Submitted Photo)

In the few years since then, working conditions have gotten more and more flexible at BTD. The company kicked off an initiative two years ago to hire, retain and promote more female employees, and that included a push for more job sharing opportunities, part-time schedules and other benefits favored by working moms.

The onset of COVID-19 last spring expanded these sorts of efforts further, as working from home, splitting shifts, shifting schedules, and reducing hours suddenly became necessary for many employees in the midst of stay-at-home orders and school closures. Working parents suddenly found themselves juggling their jobs and parental duties in unprecedented and challenging ways.

The pandemic has stretched out across nine months now, and for some parents, the balancing act proved impossible: millions of parents across the U.S. have quit their jobs in order to stay home with their kids, as reported by multiple national media outlets. Women have been especially hard hit, accounting for a majority of those who have quit working.

“Working women are experiencing the worst effects of the COVID-19 recession,” states a September 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The industries they tend to work in have been harder hit by the effects of the pandemic” and “childcare poses an additional challenge to working mothers … who tend to provide the majority of childcare.”

Information provided by BTD states that 85% of U.S. employees who left their jobs last month were women.

“We’re quite aware of what’s going on with the pandemic -- the number of women we lost in the workforce,” said Chelsea Manke, BTD’s director of supply chain and materials, and a member of the company’s Women in Leadership Committee. “BTD is looking at, how can we carve out opportunities to make BTD a successful place to work? How can we offer flexibility knowing that women are taking the brunt, dealing with hybrid learning and school closures and having to manage the household?”

Right now, 16% of BTD’s 418-person workforce in Detroit Lakes is female. Company-wide, women make up 12% of a total 1,000 employees. BTD is headquartered in Detroit Lakes and has other locations in Lakeville, Minn., as well as communities in Illinois and Georgia.

Laura Hedlund has been a machine operator and spot welder at the Detroit Lakes BTD facility for about a year and a half. She had no prior experience in manufacturing, she said, but she's enjoying it. She's been taking special training and leadership courses through the company and sees herself advancing into other, lead roles in the future. (Submitted Photo)
Laura Hedlund has been a machine operator and spot welder at the Detroit Lakes BTD facility for about a year and a half. She had no prior experience in manufacturing, she said, but she's enjoying it. She's been taking special training and leadership courses through the company and sees herself advancing into other, lead roles in the future. (Submitted Photo)

Enticing incentives like flexibility, competitive pay and bonuses, safe working conditions, and ample training and advancement opportunities, help BTD achieve its recruitment and retainment goals -- of women, especially, as the company seeks to up its percentages, but of men, too, who are also inevitably drawn to these kinds of perks.

Across the Midwest, manufacturing companies are changing and adapting, as BTD has been, to meet pandemic-related employee needs. Enhanced safety measures and flexible scheduling options are becoming the ‘new norm’ in the industry.

A study conducted in June for the Midwest Manufacturers’ Association shows that most manufacturing companies have added cross training and split shift opportunities in light of COVID-19, as well as more latitude on working from home. Some that have not offered job sharing in the past said they would be considering it in the future.

Manufacturers have also developed more social distancing and sanitization practices, cut down or halted travel for salespeople and other employees, staggered breaks, switched to electronic meetings rather than in-person, installed UV lights, and taken other similar measures to keep their employees safe from the virus. BTD has taken the extra step of providing employees with wearable electronic contact tracing devices, which warn them if they’re within 6 feet of another person and remind them to do their daily COVID-19 screenings, among other features.

The study, called “State of Manufacturing During COVID-19,” was conducted by Diedrich RPM and represented three regional manufacturing organizations: Arrowhead Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, Central Minnesota Manufacturers Association and Tri-State Manufacturers’ Association.

The challenges of a changed economy

Business at BTD was hurting at the start of the pandemic last spring, according to multiple company leaders interviewed for this story. Revenues last April dropped by almost half, and the company had to reduce its workforce in response.

In the months since then, however, BTD has recovered, big time. Revenues today are back up to pre-pandemic levels and the company is looking to hire dozens more people because of growth in recent months.

“The ride of COVID has been very dramatic for us,” said Manke. “Our first quarter, we were doing really well and then, ‘boom,’ just smack in the face with this pandemic, and everybody’s closing and...we had to reduce our workforce.”

“Then all of a sudden things picked back up very quickly,” she continued. “No one saw any of this coming. We’ll be ending the year even better than we thought we were going to, even before COVID … It’s really an exciting time for BTD that we were able to get through this, and that we were able to capitalize on growth at this time.”

How did they do it? As the company’s Vice President of Sales, Engineering and Quality, Jared Lotzer, explained, BTD “is not captive to a marketplace.”

BTD works with a broad array of clients (including Yamaha, Carrier, John Deere, Arctic Cat, Pentair and many other internationally-known brands) and offers a wide range of services: assembly, fabrication, machining, inventory management, painting and finishing, research and development, stamping, tooling, welding and more.

The company does parts and assembly for “anything metal that has wheels,” Lotzer summed up, including ATVs, lawnmowers and everything in-between: “There’s not much we can’t make these days on a vehicle-type product.”

BTD’s wide-ranging client base and production abilities make it easier for the company to adapt to changing market needs. In other words, with an umbrella that big, the company is well-suited to protect itself in a rainstorm.

When COVID-19 changed people’s summer plans, for example, personal recreational vehicles like boats and RVs went into high demand. BTD was able to work with its clients to help meet that demand by making more boat and RV parts, and that helped make up for losses in other areas. The company also ventured into some brand-new products, like hand sanitizer stands.

“We have such a breadth of capabilities," Lotzer said. "We can pivot and scale with our clients’ needs right now. We’ve been able to react as an organization.”

Shifting to meet new or different demands is something many manufacturers have done, and continue to do, in order to stay operational during COVID-19. The majority of participants in the Midwest Manufacturers’ Association’s study reported that their companies have adapted well to the changed economy, adding new suppliers, developing new products, and coming up with other innovative ways to create new revenue streams.

Yet BTD is in the minority as a manufacturer that continues to turn a nice profit during the pandemic. At the time of the study, 61% of manufacturers said their operating capacity had been negatively affected by COVID-19, and 37% of those said their businesses had the financial strength to remain open for just three months to a year. Four percent expected to close within one or two months. The remaining 59% believed they could remain open for over a year. More than 85% had applied for loans through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Hiring in a pandemic

While the majority of manufacturers around the Midwest are either putting off any new hiring until after the pandemic or are re-evaluating their open positions, BTD is actively recruiting to fill 40 to 50 open jobs at its Detroit Lakes facility.

“The recovery we’ve seen, and how we’ve bounced out of a lot of uncertainty here, is a testament to our resilience,” said Lotzer. “With our diversification as a manufacturer, our future is bright.”

Vicki Lahlum, director of human resources at BTD, said they’re seeking everything from entry level production operators to tool makers, welders to forklift handlers, machinists to IT experts, and others. They’re particularly trying to appeal to working parents, especially moms, as well as newcomers to the manufacturing world, by breaking down stereotypes about production work and highlighting all the positives that come with working for BTD.

“It’s not a typical production line,” Lotzer said. “All of our jobs are unique, you have a unique role within the organization. It’s not the same thing every day. That’s maybe the perception; we’re trying to change that.”

BTD brings new employees in at about $20 to $25 an hour, Manke said, and also offers full benefits and profit-sharing cash bonuses every February. She said company leaders prioritize “a balance of flexibility and (easing) financial burdens” for their employees. They also provide plenty of opportunities for growth.

“We have lots of examples of people who came in years ago at entry level roles, who are now in leadership,” said Beth Omang, BTD’s director of sales and operations planning. “There’s lots of diversity and opportunity to grow and go where you want to within the organization.”

That, Laura Hedlund said, is what she likes best about working at BTD. The machine operator and spot welder was completely new to manufacturing work when she was hired at the Detroit Lakes facility about a year and a half ago. She was cleaning houses before that, she said, but wanted to switch over to something with a more structured routine.

Soon after being hired, Hedlund signed up to take online training courses through the company, and has since learned how to read blueprints, use office computer software, spot weld, and set up machines to make better parts. She’s also taken some leadership courses, and hopes to take on some sort of leadership role within the company in the future.

“I’ve had lots of opportunities for growth,” she said. “I’m encouraged all the time to continue on with my questions, with learning different parts of the business, learning different parts of how they operate. They make sure that what everybody's doing is a good fit for them... I’ve just had a great experience.”