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La Grande Observer 11/28/14

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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow WORKERS WANTED

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WORKERS WANTED

RV DEMAND IS UP: An Eagle Cap Intermountain RV worker cuts material for the company that markets five RV models to dealers in six Pacific Northwest states. (Observer file photo).
RV DEMAND IS UP: An Eagle Cap Intermountain RV worker cuts material for the company that markets five RV models to dealers in six Pacific Northwest states. (Observer file photo).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Businesses did not know what to do after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Would sales fall off? Remain steady? Or would people change their habits and start buying different products?

For the local recreational vehicle market, things started booming. Manufacturers say apparently people no longer want to take long airplane trips. Many prefer to stay close to home or travel in their RV, they said.

At first, some local manufacturers didn't know what to expect. Now they don't have enough workers to keep production at the levels they'd like to achieve. Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Oregon, Northwood Manufacturing, known locally as Nash, and Eagle Cap Intermountain RV, all need workers.

"Last Sept. 20 (2001), I laid off 40 workers," said Terry Fischer, who handles human resource, safety and environmental issues for Fleetwood, which has a plant on Pierce Road.

"By Dec. 1, I needed to hire as many back and build as many units as we could. From Jan. 1 until the end of April, we were working six days a week and a lot of 10-hour days," Fischer said.

"The market for RVs is as good as it has been for some time — up 14 percent to 20 percent. Business is good and I hope it will stay that way for a while."

Northwood is seeing the same thing, owner Ron Nash said. Even with 275 employees and three production lines, Nash said he about 50 workers short of where the company should be. The company manufactures the Nash, Arctic Fox and Desert Fox lines of travel trailers, fifth wheels and campers.

The problem facing the RV manufacturers, company officials say, is finding people who want to work steadily — people with good work ethics.

"We've been having trouble since Dec. 1. On that date, we were at 140 employees. I tried to add 100 more. I hired 170, but the work force only increased by 80,'' Fischer said.

"There was some loss by attrition, but a lot of people just didn't show up or they'd work for two weeks, a month or two months and then quit.

"We start at $9.84 an hour, and a lot of people I talked to (who were applying for jobs) were making $6.75 to $7.50. After only five weeks here, they can start making a production bonus. The last six months, our workers have averaged a 30 percent bonus (of their base salary). That takes you from $9.84 to $12.79 an hour. And we have raises,'' Fischer said.

"At the end of a year, a worker's salary is $10.92 plus bonuses. And we have a great health plan and good holiday and vacation package."

At Nash, workers start at $8.15 an hour but qualify for an additional 40 to 45 percent bonus after four weeks, which puts them at $11.50. Raises are scheduled at 13 weeks, 26 weeks and one year. Nash employees, too, have retirement, 401K and group medical benefits.

The average pay in Union County was $24,149 in 2000, the last year for which the Oregon Employment Department has figures.

The basic problem is that people won't show up for work, said Fischer. The company allows no sick leave time and has a strict attendance

policy.

"Our attendance policy is simple. If you have two absence periods in the first 60 calendar days, we terminate you. An absence period can be up to three consecutive days."

Those with year of service are allowed more absences before being terminated. He explains this and other policies to prospective workers, Fischer said.

Fleetwood, which markets Terry, Prowler, Wilderness and now Pioneer travel trailers, has 211 workers on the production line.

"We are very lucky. They are great workers. They come to work every day, they earn their pay and have a strong work ethic," he said.

"If both us and Nash Manufacturing (Northwood) had people with a good work background, we'd hire them on the spot."

Both companies have been advertising for workers. Company officials have talked to Union County's Contact Committee, which coordinates economic development efforts, about the predicament. The county has begun looking at ways it can get the word out about the need for workers.

Owners at a newer company, Eagle Cap Intermountain RV, operating out of a building near the airport, have similar problems.

The 18-month-old company, which has about 30 workers, "has had some turnover," said one of the owners, Eric Kilpatrick.

"We have no problem hiring; there are plenty of applicants, but only one in five wants to stick around,'' Kilpatrick said.

"We pay pretty well although we're not a big enough company to be able to afford a health plan, but our retirement plan beats that of some other companies. We have to find some people who want to work — not just draw a paycheck."

The small company markets five RV models, which Kilpatrick calls mid- to high-end products, to dealers in six Pacific Northwest states. He hopes to expand somewhat in the near future.

"I'm not disappointed in the way things are going. We're in good shape for the fall," Kilpatrick said.

Nash said he's pleased with the direction of the RV business. Sales have been steady and the company has been able to keep its crew working year-round, usually building up a yard inventory for the busy season. This year sales have been so brisk the company never got to the point of building up its yard inventory.

"We're keeping busy,'' Nash said. "The RV business is healthier than it's ever been. Hopefully it will continue.''

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