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Putnam plants find job skills lacking in the area

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some Putnam County employers say they're having a hard time finding suitable employees.

At Nippon Thermostat, spokeswoman Shizue York said her company has found only one in 10 applicants is able to correctly answer a simple math question on the pre-employment exam.

Most companies in Putnam County are hiring, said Gary Walton, director of the Putnam Development Authority, but it's been a challenge.

Putnam has the third lowest percentage of unemployed residents in the state -- 5.4 percent, according to July information provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Walton hopes that number, down from 6.7 percent in July 2011, will continue to drop, and expects it to, but is concerned about the available workforce.

"The biggest problem is finding people to work. [Young people] today want to start out at the top," Walton said. "I've heard people say they didn't want to work at Toyota, because you go in as a temporary employee while they decide whether or not to keep you."

To try and weed out unsatisfactory job performance, many companies are hiring workers on a temporary basis, many times with less pay and benefits, to get an idea if they are reliable and can handle the workload.

Toyota and two of its nearby parts suppliers, Nippon Thermostat and Diamond Electric, among others, first hire on a preliminary basis to see if an employee will show up for work and can catch on to required duties.

Nippon Thermostat recently announced it would double the size of its plant in Fraziers Bottom and create 30 jobs. The company, which makes automotive thermostats, will hire someone on a temporary, three-month basis before determining whether or not to keep them on the job.

"Some people can't survive three months," York said.

Currently, only about half of the newly hired temporary workers are able to secure full-time employment, she said.

"I know we've had issues ourselves for the last year or so in finding good people ... or at least people who really want to work," Dave Bagnall, director of community affairs for Diamond Electric in Eleanor, said in an email.

"We hire temporary people too, with the idea that they could move into full-time employment. Our turnover rate has been extremely high with that group of people."

Amy Hartman, human resources manager at Diamond, said hiring temporary workers has saved the company money.

"In 60 days, they'll get an increase and some benefits, and 90 days later is when they can become a regular full-time employee," she said.

Her company, like others, has had problems finding people who will come to work every day, Hartman said.

"Many potential employees will come to work a couple weeks and then leave," Hartman said.

Putnam County school officials have met with local business leaders because of concerns about the increasing workforce needed in the area, and the school system has incorporated career readiness skills into its regular curriculum.

Business leaders regularly attend meetings at the county career and technical school, where classes are sometimes closed because of demand. Also, this year, for the first time, things like work ethic and communication skills count as part of student's grades.

In March, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., met with officials from Japanese companies from around the state who voiced concerns over the workforce's lack of skills in science, engineering and math.

York noted that while math and science skills are needed, especially in West Virginia, Nippon would still take workers with less experience and education -- as long as they're willing to work.

"We still hire them, but they can't do certain jobs because of it," she said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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