The recovery puzzle: A new factory in Ohio struggles to match jobs to job-seekers

Bernie Coyle wants to hire people. In this hopeful moment in the recuperating American economy, he wants to give 40 new employees health insurance, dental insurance, good wages and a 401(k) plan with a company match, and then he wants to bring them to Fort Recovery, Ohio, where, on June 1, he is scheduled to open a new plant.

These 40 people will run machinery dedicated to the breaking of eggs, whose liquids will then be shipped to commercial bakeries throughout the country. One hundred and forty-four thousand eggs each hour. One-point-three million eggs a day.

So early on a Wednesday morning, Bernie sets up his laptop in the breakfast room of the Holiday Inn Express outside of town, smooths his hands over the belly of his button-down Perham Egg Ohio shirt, and creates a spreadsheet. He labels it “Hiring Matrix.”

“All right,” he says. “Here we go.”

The first résumé belongs to a guy named David, who lives four hours away in Chicago and wants to run the plant’s maintenance. “Results-driven,” David describes himself, in the hyphenated style particular to job applications. “Team-oriented.” “Spearheaded.”


“David, David,” Bernie mutters. “This guy was in the Army ’82 to ’85, so that would put him, what, circa 50 years old? David.”

David’s last full-time job ended in November 2008: “Downsized.”

Bernie opens the next one, and the one after that — the narrative of America’s battered, hopeful workforce laid out in bullet points. Keywords represent the rise and fall of industries, the ebb and flow of unemployment rates: “Seasoned professional.” “Sanitation manager.” “Automotive plant manager.”

“Sorry, guy,” Bernie says, deciding that a former Chrysler supervisor doesn’t have the right skill set.

“Sorry, Kyle. I would love to take care of our vets, but this is a lousy résumé.”

“Steve.” No. “Gary.” No. “Robert.” No.

This is the way an economy recovers. Sometimes Wal-Mart opens one new store and 23,000 people submit applications. Other times, as hiring confidence goes up — as the economy last month added 192,000 positions — recovery looks more like the matrix in front of Bernie: a puzzle of mismatched statistics in which qualified workers can’t find jobs, and jobs can’t quite find qualified workers.

Bernie clicks on an application he’s looked at before but keeps coming back to. It’s a man, older, who appears to have been underemployed for eight months, piecing together contract work since a plant downsizing. The document attached to the file is labeled “Dad’s Resume.”

“Dad’s Resume,” Bernie says to himself and shakes his head. He has an idea of what kind of person Dad’s Resume might be: Late 50s, early 60s. Experienced. Possibly down on his luck. The way the document is labeled makes Bernie think that maybe the guy doesn’t know much about computers and had to rely on his kid to attach the application and e-mail it in.

Dad’s Resume, he thinks, might be the quintessential story of what it means to be a job-seeker in 2014, in this time of retraining and specialized skill sets. Maybe Dad’s skills are obsolete. Maybe he’s found his world upended. The economy is creeping back to normal. Maybe he’s putting himself out there again.

Bernie wants to interview four to five candidates for each supervisory position. He makes a list of his top choices. He adds Dad’s Resume. So this guy might not have computer skills. He wants to give him a shot.

“Looks like 14 folks that warrant face-to-face,” he e-mails his company’s human resources chief. “Please set up interviews.”

All Bernie wants to do is hire people.

* * *

This is what Bernie can offer, according to the job notice posted on nationwide sites:

“NEW MANUFACTURING FACILITY OPENING SOON IN FORT RECOVERY, OH!!!”

“As anyone who has looked at a breakfast menu lately can attest, there has been an explosion of egg white offerings. Frequent travelers can attest that most hotels offer a hot buffet that includes various pre-packaged egg offerings or scrambled eggs. All of these items require egg liquid separated from an egg in large machines.”

The other thing Bernie is offering is Fort Recovery.

Population 1,430. Surrounded by corn and soybean fields and long, low chicken barns, located just over the border from Indiana. A village with a two-block downtown, a $4.99 lunch special, and a wooden statue of Red-Haired Nance, the town folk hero who, in the 18th-century battle that gave the town its name, allegedly battled the Indians with a frying pan in one hand and a baby in the other.

Until last year, Bernie had never heard of it. Then his boss at North Central Equity holding company called up Bernie, who at the time was overseeing a tool manufacturing plant in Green Bay, and said, “Bernie, I got a line on a million chickens.” An egg-grading facility was offloading birds, the boss said, and this would be an excellent opportunity for the company to start up a breaking plant.

So Bernie pulled up Google Earth, figured out where Fort Recovery was and drove down to Mercer County, which has more eggs than just about any other place in Ohio, and lower unemployment, too — just 4.3 percent in the latest numbers. When the job notice went up and résumés started coming in to Bernie from Columbus (5.9 percent unemployment), Atlanta (7.9 percent), Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (9.4 percent), it seemed that maybe Fort Recovery could be everyone’s recovery, a recovery metaphor of the country.

* * *

Thirteen days after sorting through the résumés, Bernie waits in the conference room of the Fort Recovery town hall and lays out three piles of paper: the official employment application, an explanation of Perham Egg’s benefits, and the résumés of the candidates he expects to interview today before bringing finalists to the plant at the end of the week.

“I like to ask them what makes them special,” he explains. “What makes them tick.”

Bernie is 62 and has been in the plant-opening and -managing business long enough to know how to read a résumé. He believes in figuring out not only what people can do but how they process information. He believes in Lean Thinking. He believes in “genchi genbutsu,” the Japanese philosophy of “go and see,” a deeply observational management style. He’s not a boastful man, but he thinks he’s pretty good at his job. “My batting average would probably get me into Cooperstown,” he likes to say. His house and his wife are in a Philadelphia suburb, he’s been living out of the Holiday Inn since July, he’s been eating the same salad at the same Wings & Rings every night.

Bernie is ready for this plant to be open.

“It’s 10:04.” He raises his eyebrows at the wall clock. The first interview was supposed to be here at 10. “Not a good way to start the process. What’s the college professor rule?” he tries to remember. “Ten minutes?”

The interviewee doesn’t show at 10:10, either. He doesn’t show at all for a job that pays $50,000. “This never happens,” Bernie says.

A few hours later, it happens again.

“We had two no-shows,” Bernie says to Roberta Staugler, the village’s fiscal officer, whose desk is in the town hall’s lobby.

“You’re kidding me,” she says.

“And these are good management jobs.”

“I don’t believe it.”

Bernie does a few sums: From the original 14 planned interviews, there were two no-shows, plus the person last week who declined an interview, plus the two who never responded to e-mails at all. Here, in this town, where people from Rancho Cucamonga claimed they would move if only it meant a good job, Bernie is down to nine candidates for four positions.

The two interviews Bernie does conduct today are with good people who aren’t quite qualified for management roles.

“Tell me a little bit about Barry. Tell me what makes you special,” he encourages one, a moon-faced 37-year-old with two young daughters.

“I just want to better myself,” Barry says shyly.

“Tell me what makes you special,” he asks Ruth, who admits she doesn’t think she’s right for the job but, at 54, just wants a job with some security.

At the end of the day, Bernie gets in his Toyota sedan, with a back seat messy from months of cross-country commutes, and drives back to the plant. Inside it smells like drywall and sounds like jackhammers. The heating only recently got fixed, and the Internet is still spotty. In the back are eggs, hundreds of thousands of them, stacked six or seven feet high in cold storage, itching to be sold or broken.

“We had two no-shows,” he calls to Robyn Laird, the office manager for Perham Egg Ohio, over the noise.

“That’s crazy,” she bellows.

This is Robyn’s second day at work. Bernie hired her last month. Robyn, who had been waiting tables at a bar for a year after extracting herself from a bad situation working with her ex; who told Bernie that the thing that made her special was the 4H club she’d started for local kids; who accepted the office manager job gratefully, cannot imagine anyone skipping a job interview. Her parents sent her flowers on her first day of work, relieved their daughter was employed. “Congratulations on your new job. Love Mom and Dad.”

* * *

“Knock on wood, our recovery has been very robust,” says Jared Ebbing, and then he does knock on wood, rapping on his desk in the Mercer County courthouse. Ebbing is the county’s economic development director. “We have a lot of things going for us. What we need is someone who will give rural a shot.”

To that end, he has created Hometown Opportunity, a Web site encouraging people to seek employment in Fort Recovery and its surrounding towns. “I mean, we’re not backwoods. People say we’re in the middle of nowhere, but I like to say we’re in the center of everything. One-and-a-half hours from Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Indianapolis,” he says, although some of those cities are closer to two hours.

“We’ve posted more than 1,400 jobs on Hometown Opportunities,” Ebbing says. “Have you heard of Ferguson? It’s sort of like the Amazon of the plumbing world.” Ferguson has recently opened a plant nearby, and it’s hiring clerks, shipping associates, engineers, order pickers.

At the Fort Recovery bowling alley on league nights, guys in matching shirts talk about their jobs at Ferguson, or at J&M making grain carts, or processing chickens or turkeys, or grading eggs. It got bad here, sure, with an unemployment rate over 9 percent back in 2010, but the county’s agricultural base sustained it and most everybody agrees that now, if you want a job, you can get one.

This is what recovery looks like, and it’s a good thing, unless you’re trying to open an egg-breaking plant.

Bernie talks to a lock guy to figure out the best locks to protect the facility.

Bernie talks to the sewer guys to figure out whether the waste management plan is working.

Bernie has seven children, including a son with spina bifida who recently lost his own job because of a funding cut and who looks for new work every day.

Bernie hears from another promising applicant who says he’s decided not to come to his Monday interview, bringing the applicant pool down to eight. “Good golly,” Bernie says. “This is insane.”

Bernie’s employer dream is the handshake. “Seal the deal,” he says. “Press the flesh.” He likes the ritual of it, the immediacy. He likes to bring people in for their second interview, and, assuming it goes well, he likes to suggest a salary, ask “Do we have a deal?” and shake hands on the spot.

Since his disappointing first day of interviews, he’s developed a contingency plan. Maybe Ruth and Barry aren’t ready for management jobs, he thinks, but they’re both hard workers. He could bring them in for second interviews for less senior positions. It would still mean filling two jobs. He would still have the handshake.

Now, on a Wednesday morning, he’s wearing another Perham Egg shirt, neatly pressed, as he heads to the town hall for the second day of interviews. The first appointment’s scheduled for 10 a.m., but when he arrives at 9:45 she’s already there: a slight woman with red hair wearing a pantsuit, neatly pressed, and carrying a folder filled with certificates and proofs of completion.

“Are you Bernie?” She rises and smiles. “I’m Gloria.”

* * *

Gloria Burns wants to be hired. She wants to be the SQF practitioner — the safe quality food specialist — for Perham Egg Ohio. She spent the weekend researching the company. She’s brought extra copies of her résumé, which she recently rehabbed via a seminar at a local church. She reminds herself, now, while shaking Bernie’s hand, to look him straight in the eye.

“Tell me why you’re special,” Bernie asks. “Tell me why this job floats your boat.”

“I’m very passionate about [this work] because I’ve been in quality for 25 years,” Gloria says. “Food safety is one of the most important things to give to customers.”

Bernie gets more philosophical than he has with any applicant so far: “Do you think quality can be inspected into a product?”

“Good question.” She nods approvingly. “It cannot be inspected. It has to be there to begin with.”

Bernie makes a note on her application and asks her how she came to be interested in the SQF position.

“Presently I’m looking for another job. Because I was terminated from my previous job. I don’t have any regrets or anything.”

“It was a termination because it closed?”

“No. They terminated me. As a person.”

It was due to a management change, she explains, but before she was let go she led her former plant to a 98 percent on a quality inspection. That was four months ago. She’s been figuring out how to get back in the workforce since, and this job, with a salary range starting at $45,000 compared with the mid-50s she was making before — this job looks interesting.

At the end of the interview, Gloria drives back to the farm she lives on in the next county down (Darke, unemployment rate 6.1 percent), to the husband who works at the Kitchen-Aid factory, to the life she has been trying to cram full of activity and purpose ever since she was let go. She teaches Sunday school. She volunteers at her grandson’s school. She pursues her associate’s degree online, she cleans houses part time, and she tends to her chickens, whose eggs she does not break but rather sells via a sign by the side of the road.

She feels cautiously optimistic.

At the end of the interview, Bernie sits through another no-show, bringing the applicant pool down to seven.

He has a break for lunch, and then a final interview he has down for 3 p.m. Time creeps by on the wall clock. 3:05. 3:10. 3:15. Just as he’s about to give up, the door opens: an older man, with a checked shirt and a gray mustache. It’s Dad’s Resume.

“Did you have any trouble getting here today?” Bernie asks, looking meaningfully at the time.

“No. It was a great trip.”

Dad’s Resume does not apologize for being late.

He says that he considers himself a “productivity and improvement specialist,” which is a specialty he invented himself. He says that he once saved a floundering hot-dog plant by painting an office wall bright green and stenciling upon it, in foot-high letters, “THE A-TEAM.” The purpose of this, he explains, was to encourage his workers to be the A-Team of the hot-dog world. Dad’s Resume says that he likes to “work hard and play hard.” He proposes, as a starting salary, a number $15,000 to $25,000 higher than the salary posted for the position.

Bernie blinks behind his frameless glasses and says, “That’s what you’re looking for?”

* * *

“Deanna, this is Bernie for our regularly scheduled conference call, for which I am late.”

The day after the interviews are finished, Bernie calls his company’s HR rep to give her a rundown on the hiring.

“Let’s go backwards. The last guy was 15 minutes late, full of himself, and he wants the moon. I’m not asking him back.”

Francella was a no-show, Bernie recaps. James was a no-show. He wants to bring Gloria back for a second interview for the food quality position, but right now he has nobody he could put in the production supervisor role. That’s the biggest job he has to offer, listed at $60,000 to $70,000 for a person with the right qualifications.

Bernie likes to think of his job as if he’s building a baseball team. He knows he’s got to fill so many slots with so many applicants, but there’s potentially some wiggle room in how he does that. Can the guy who applied for first base play right field instead? What about the pitcher?

He looks at the calendar hanging on the wall of the dusty office in the noisy plant. “June 1st,” he tells Deanna. “June 1st.”

* * *

Gloria is 20 minutes early for her second interview.

Bernie arrives to meet her at the plant after a lunch buffet at the bowling alley, which followed yet another hotel breakfast. He usually has oatmeal. Bernie’s doctor has warned him about cholesterol. Bernie doesn’t really eat eggs.

He’s asked his colleague Tim Zueger to accompany him on the plant walk-through, wanting another pair of eyes to observe how Gloria reacts to the job site.

Tim, who’s been in eggs all his life, mostly hangs behind while Bernie and Gloria talk about their shared interest in cleanliness.

“You have three shifts?” Gloria asks.

“Two shifts.”

“And the third is sanitization?”

“A complete tear-down,” he affirms.

“Good. I like that.”

Bernie leads her to a half-finished construction area along the side of the plant. “I made them stop work here. Why do you think I made them stop work?”

“Mold,” she answers, and points to a faint rim of gray along the floor.

“You got it.”

At the end of the tour, Bernie leaves Gloria along a strip of drywall, overlooking a sea of concrete and caution tape and the wide empty space that will, in two months, break millions and millions of eggs. Twenty yards away, he converses with Tim. He comes back five minutes later with a proposition.

“Would it be of interest to you,” he asks, “to run the plant?”

He doesn’t want to offer her the job she applied for. He wants to offer her a better job, to make her the boss.

“That’s — that’s great.” Inside, Gloria tells herself she would have waited tables in a restaurant if this hadn’t worked out, or found another way to be okay. She thought that the interview had gone well, but she was never expecting an offer like this, so soon.

Bernie says he wants to send her to a sister plant in Minnesota for training, as quickly as the next week. “Do we have a deal?” he asks.

Gloria says she’d like to look over the paperwork, and she has to book travel arrangements, and —

“Do we have a deal?” he asks again and extends his hand.

Finally she nods, laughing.

One more hire down. Plenty left to go. But one more down as the economy recovers.

“Shake?” Bernie says. “Shake? Shake.”

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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