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Education Is Win-Win for Fairmont and Its Employees

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Education Is Win-Win for Fairmont and Its Employees

With about 900 employees, Fairmont Homes is one of the largest employers in north-central Indiana, which CEO Jim Shea calls 'the Silicon Valley of manufactured homes and RVs.'


By Meghan Stromberg, Senior Editor September 30, 2002
This article first appeared in the PB October 2002 issue of Pro Builder.
NHQ Silver
Capitalizing on People
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With about 900 employees, Fairmont Homes is one of the largest employers in north-central Indiana, which CEO Jim Shea calls "the Silicon Valley of manufactured homes and RVs." Human resources director Rick Jones points out that Fairmont competes not only within its industry for labor, but also with other factories in the region. For Fairmont's labor base, taking a new job in a different industry because the hourly wage is slightly higher is an economic fact and quite common.

 

Director of engineering Tom Brandt (right) reviews new home orders with (from left) plant superintendent Steve Maisonneuve and assistant supervisors Nathan Yoder and Josh Isbell. Maisonneuve's plant decreased cycle times by 22% using lean manufacturing methods, team-based problem solving and increased employee training.

Employee retention is one reason Fairmont is committed to turning "unskilled" workers into valuable human capital. But investing in the personal growth of all employees is key to its mission statement and its goal of being a leader and good citizen in its community.

The company's most innovative educational program is the University of Fairmont. Through job-related training and on-site classes, Fairmont workers have access to high school equivalency programs and even two- and four-year degrees. In the past three years, 40 employees have completed the GED program through Fairmont, Jones says. Associate and bachelor of science degrees are offered through partnerships with Vincennes (Ind.) University and Bethel College (Mishawaka, Ind.), respectively. Classes are held Thursday evenings at Fairmont's clubhouse and are taught by college professors. Both programs are new only one associate's degree class has graduated, and the first candidates for the bachelor's degree in organizational management will graduate in May 2003.

Stan Rensberger, a production manager and 30-year employee of Fairmont, received his associate's degree (daughter Kelly was in the same class) and now is in the four-year program. He says he was confident in his job skills and his ability to manage people, but concedes he was computer-illiterate before beginning the program and was lacking in the structure and tools that could make him a more efficient problem solver and effective leader. "Everything can't be hands-on building," he says. "There are other tools we need to make this a top-notch organization."

He also says he wouldn't have gone back to school if Fairmont hadn't made it so convenient a point that Shea notes is key to the program's success, especially considering the plant's fairly rural location. Students also like that they learn with their peers in a mutually supportive learning environment.

Grants help pay for much of the education, but employees pay their share, too. And the work is not easy. Rensberger says he often writes eight-, 10- or 25-page papers.

These educational opportunities have helped Fairmont lower its turnover rate from 40% in 1999 to 20% today. That percentage is outstanding in the manufactured housing industry, and Jones points out that 90% of turnover happens within the 60-day probationary period.

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