Settled In

FROM THE JUNE ISSUE: Success and lack of turnover have created a shortage of open positions in the ethanol industry.
By Tim Albrecht | May 29, 2018

Contrary to many industries in the Midwest, ethanol overall doesn’t have a shortage of employee candidates. Instead, it has somewhat of a shortage of available jobs.

The industry’s success and plants’ relative youth have led to a lack of open positions, says Walter Wendland, president, CEO and chairman of Ringneck Energy & Feed LLC. “Good compensation, benefits and good work environments have led to a low turnover rate in the industry,” he says. “The industry is rather young, most of the plants are less than 15 years old and a lot of the employees that were initially hired are from a younger generation, so you don’t see the usual retirements you would see in an industry that’s been around for 50 years.”

Workplace Outlook
The ethanol industry has rebounded considerably since market problems in 2008, which affected producers’ ability to hire quality candidates and stay profitable. Conditions have improved, positions have been filled and the lack of open jobs has reduced the number of job seekers entering the ethanol industry, says Mark Ragland, director of biofuels talent acquisition for SearchPath of Chicago Inc.

“One thing to consider is, if you visit an ethanol facility and it’s this enormous facility that’s producing 100 million gallons of ethanol per year—a lot of those plants only employ maybe 50 people. These plants don’t require as many people to run their operation, compared to a food company or something similar that would have more hands on the floor.”

A lack of awareness and less emphasis on biofuels from the major automotive manufacturers also contribute to fewer college students choosing a career in the industry, says Michael Behrmann, associate dean for academic affairs of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

SIU-Carbondale offers an alternative fuels curriculum as well as a sustainability minor as a part of its four-year baccalaureate degree program in automotive technology. The curriculum includes training in advanced automotive truck-equipment system technology, industry applied business management-leadership practices, data usage, and the necessary interpersonal skills.

“As compared to other areas that are available and open to our students, we see only a few of our students entering the biofuels industry. Students are being actively recruited early on in their academic career by other sectors of the industry and they do a good job of building brand and company awareness.”

But there are some areas for growth in the industry, including positions related to the new technologies being implemented to improve efficiency, says Jon Leafstedt, managing partner of Kincannon & Reed Ltd.

Renee Loesche, director of the Building Illinois Bioeconomy Curriculum and Training Department at Southeastern Illinois College, agrees. “In the past decade, there have been sweeping innovations such as biodiesel units that bolt on to ethanol plants, zero-waste producers, the many companies that support the industry from water treatment, to mechanical and electrical outage support, and the increased innovations in byproducts such as truly biodegradable packaging made from ethanol byproducts.”

Southeastern Illinois College offers a basic Biofuels and Sustainability Certificate comprised of four courses focused on ethanol and biodiesel production. This certificate can then be the basis for other certificates, an associate’s degree, and can lead into a bachelor’s degree with either SIU-Edwardsville or Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Hiring Process
Ringneck Energy is building its first plant in Onida, South Dakota. The plant brings with it a new outlook on the hiring process for Wendland, who has participated in several other plant development projects. “When I started up previous plants, we had a lot more people that were new to the industry,” he says. “We think the industry is more established so we have an opportunity at employees that have experience within the industry.”

Wendland hopes to first find employees who are originally from the Onida area and want to come back. Secondarily, Ringneck will focus on candidates in the area looking for an opportunity in the ethanol industry, he says.

Ringneck is working with Energy Management Solutions, a subsidiary of ICM, to recruit employees and assist in running the facility. “EMS will try to find people that don’t have a lot of opportunity in plants they’re at, but there will be some things that are appealing to them about Ringneck,” Wendland says. “It’s a brand-new facility with new technologies and it’s a little more cutting edge than some plants from earlier in the industry. That might be more intriguing for somebody who’s in the industry now, but is looking for a shift.”

While hiring for entry-level positions is pretty straightforward, filling higher-level jobs is a bit more involved, says Gary Weihs, managing partner of Kincannon & Reed. “For example, we’re hired to find a CEO of an ethanol plant and then we would work with them to develop what the search profile is for the position. The biggest part is the cultural fit. We look at if that CEO is going to work well with the board and are they going to be a good leader of people.”

Certifications and training, along with biofuel-related degrees, are attractive qualities in candidates of all levels, Loesche says. Most companies want to hire applicants with work experience to fill the operations positions. Chemistry and operations management positions are more likely to require technical or chemical degrees, or certifications, Loesche says. “The biofuels industry and associated support industries have matured over the last decade,” she says. “Most companies are looking for employees with good work records and who have attempted to build their skill sets with training, whether it's college or technical levels.”

Many plants offer on-site training for new employees unfamiliar with the ethanol process. Loesche says ethanol producers have begun introducing their own internal training programs to “orient incoming workers to the field of biofuels and to train them on safety, plant equipment and internal procedures.”

At Wendland’s plants, and as a part of ICM’s procedure, employees are required to complete a six- to eight-week training, whether they have previous experience or not. “For entry-level positions, as long as they have the basic skills, we can train them on how to use our systems over time,” Wendland says. “We’re looking for a lot of the classic things in an employee, such as communication skills, work ethic and being on time—a lot of those simple things.”

Up the Ladder
Wendland says low turnover within the ethanol industry prompts employees to transfer across companies. Some employees have the requirements to fill a supervisory role, but are stuck in a nonsupervisory position because no higher-level jobs are open within the company. They might look to another company to advance in their career, he says.

But on the executive level, the willingness of candidates to relocate for a new position has declined in the past decade or two, Weihs says. “The U.S. is the most mobile society in the world. So, when we’re asking someone to pick up and move, executives are less available now then they were in the past based off data we’ve seen in the industry.”

Also, ethanol plants are located in rural areas, making them less desirable for executives. So some companies are establishing administrative offices in large cities to attract those executives to nonoperation positions, Leafstedt says. “It’s dramatically enhanced some of those companies’ ability to bring in good talent.”

Ragland says many ethanol plant employees are local residents and enjoy the tight-knit work environments they find at ethanol plants. “The company itself is a lot like a family and those are not easily broken up.

“The good news is if you find a job with a good plant, you have a place you can retire at some point,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about what your next job is going to be in three to five years. That’s a good thing.”

Author: Tim Albrecht
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]