Hamilton manufacturer hiring while continuing changes for coronavirus safety

Fabian Schmahl, right, President and CEO of thyssenkrupp Bilstein of America, Inc., and Aiden Lewis, show suspension components for the new Ram TRX pickup during a tour of the facility Tuesday, November 24, 2020 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Fabian Schmahl, right, President and CEO of thyssenkrupp Bilstein of America, Inc., and Aiden Lewis, show suspension components for the new Ram TRX pickup during a tour of the facility Tuesday, November 24, 2020 in Hamilton. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

One of Hamilton’s largest employers is having difficulty filling nearly 60 jobs, a challenge leaders believe is caused by fears of starting a new job amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Bilstein of America is a manufacturer for the automotive industry, including products such as the suspension for the new Dodge Ram 1500 TRX pickup truck, said Fabian Schmahl, the Hamilton plant’s president and CEO. He said the company has taken many steps to ensure the health and safety of its employees, even before the onset of the pandemic, including contracting with Tri-Health for an on-site plant nurse.

Since the start of the pandemic, the company installed a medical-grade air filtration system, cleaning stations for the start of every shift, staggered shifts, automated scanners for temperature checks, 3-D prints masks and what it calls its “COVID claw” for touchless contact to open doors. It has also added outdoor employee break areas and spread out plant work stations.

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Pre-pandemic, the company would have 10 to 20 open positions at any given time, but now it has 58 openings, most of which are in the company’s plant. Some are office positions.

“One of the really cool things is we do a lot of innovation. You can see a lot of automation here,” Schmahl said. “Everyone here can really upskill themselves and learn something.”

Bilstein’s opening minimum wage is $15 an hour for first-shift jobs and $15.75 for second- and third-shift jobs.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October was 5.2 percent, the lowest since the onset of the pandemic in March, when the unemployment rate was at 5.6 percent.

The company has manufactured masks and the “COVID claw” for employees, said Stephanie Flannery, Bilstein Hamilton’s Occupational Safety and Health manager

“Our employees are obviously our priority so it’s important that we keep them healthy and safe,” she said.

She company also credits plant nurse Teri Baker with having “single-handedly kept our plant open” by communicating the latest health guidelines and protocols with employees and being available 24 hours a day, Flannery said.

“We’re just focused on making sure we can still run the business and keep everybody safe, healthy and employed,” Flannery said.

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Baker said guidelines and protocols can change frequently because of new information or a better understanding about the virus, so educating employees regularly is important.

“The education has to continue because it’s changing rapidly all the time on so many levels, whether it’s symptoms, if you’re in contact (with someone COVID-19-positive) or how much time you’re in contact,” Baker said.

Schmahl said in Bilstein’s success, whether it’s keeping employees healthy or continual work on innovative technology, “it starts with employee engagement.”

Bilstein Hamilton spokeswoman Sarah King said the company’s culture “is hard to find in most manufacturer environments,” but they’ve “seemed to have mastered it.”

“It’s really neat to see our product getting out there. You get to see it on the vehicles at the end and we try to feel that excitement that what we do is meaningful work and it’s also enjoyable,” she said.