Where is work ethic of yesteryear?

West Bend historically enjoyed an unemployment rate that was better than the Wisconsin average, mainly because it had a diversified business base that was anchored in manufacturing.

That started to change 20 years ago when global competition knocked out several large employers and was compounded by the damage to local manufacturers in the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 and its long hangover from 2010 through today. West Bend’s story was the same across the industrial Midwest.

Those economic blows resulted in the eastern part of West Bend and Trenton being designated as a “low income” census tract as of the 2010 national count. That never happened before.

So, theoretically, we have a lot of people available for hire. But, in the real world, that’s not proving to be the case. Serigraph, which had to cut its workforce in half to survive 2008 and 2009,after decades without major layoffs, is hiring again and we are having a very difficult time funding people who want to work.

One manager described the difficulty of hiring as “excruciating.”

We have hired 56 fulltime employees since last fall, including a dozen engineers, chemists and managers. But we still have 20 openings and 89 temporary workers to fill the gaps. Plus, we are working a lot of overtime to keep up with orders.

Such growth is a nice problem to have after five years in the swamp, but it presents a real challenge if capable workers aren’t available to Serigraph and other companies that are growing again. The entry level pay isn’t real high; but it ranges from $9 for unskilled positions to $13 for semi-skilled, along with a full package of benefits.

Here’s some feedback I received from the people doing the hiring here:
• Unemployed people make an application and then some don’t even call back when they are called for an interview. Go figure.
• When we convert a temporary worker doing a good job to permanent status, some of them stop showing up for work on a consistent basis. What’s that all about?
• The staffing companies are having a hard time finding temporary workers.

• It isn’t a lack of basic skills in reading, writing or math that’s the problem; it’s the work ethic.

Said one supervisor, “If they wanted to work, if they would come to work, they wouldn’t be unemployed.”

There have been two high level state task forces that analyzed at the gap between job openings across the state and available talent. Many agencies and schools are trying to solve that mismatch. Gov. Walker has programs in his new budget to develop better labor market information so people can be guided into the right career paths.

And there is no question that on a strategic level that labor shortages can hold back the growth of local and state economies. That’s especially true if the openings are in key economic clusters that drive the economy, like advanced manufacturing.

His administration has also boosted the prospects for manufacturing by enacting a phased-in removal of the state income tax on manufacturers, starting this year and going away almost completely by 2015. Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend led that charge.

But all those efforts at creating jobs will be blunted if the next generation, for whatever reasons, is not motivated to take and keep a job. Wisconsin used to be famous for its high work ethic.
Is that no longer true?

One way or another, Serigraph will find the permanent people it needs. We are willing to do the training so they can move up to higher pay jobs. But it has to be a two-way effort.

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  • DJ


  • Same thing our company experienced. The young adults (age 22-27) are glued to their phones, and respond to questions like they are texting friends while drunk. I received a bunch of intro emails saying “Hey there, here’s my resume…” It’s pathetic. They should be embarrassed, as should their teachers, their professors and their parents.

    • JohnTorinus

      Who’s carrying them anyway? Don’t they have to earn a living?

      • Their parents. They get everything from mom and dad well into their 20’s now. Their bartending “job” is for spending money.

        • JohnTorinus

          In the old days, parents cut you off at some point.

          The excuse for living at home off the folks in recent days has been the shortage of jobs. But the jobs are coming back.

          What’s changed?

  • Lodi, Wisconsin

    I worked as a temp for $9.00 in a professional purchasing position with a large manufacturer in Racine while in college in 1989. That’s 24 years ago, and you’re telling me the pay hasn’t changed? My first position with a four-year degree earned about $13 an hour and that was 23 years ago. I am not completely disagreeing with the work ethic issue, but the wages you are citing for 40 hours of work are not enough for that 22-27 year old to leave home and live independently. They can get the same take-home pay by waiting tables and tending bar for 24-30 hours a week.

    • JohnTorinus

      You raise a very good point. Our entry jobs are really low skill, inspecting, material handling, etc. And good workers can move up pretty fast. Nonetheless, the market may force a higher wage.

      Waiting tables and tending bar are generally dead end jobs. These are not.

      I think the work ethic points still stands.

      • Lodi, Wisconsin

        I agree that waiting tables and tending bar are dead end jobs, but I am also in my mid-40s with a family. Times have changed. The 25-year old today thinks that ANY job is a dead end job because of complete lack of certainty in the job market. Serigraph may be a great company and you might be a great leader, but even you will not guarantee someone a job in your company 10 years from now. To you and me, the idea of bouncing every 5-7 years to a completely different career is horrific. The 25-year olds expect it to be their reality and they embrace it. They don’t think a 30-year career with a single company is possible, and they frankly wouldn’t want a 30-year career in the same place.

        • JohnTorinus

          We do have many long term employees here. Some retire with 40 years under their belts. We like that.

          We had gone 21 years without a significant layoff before the boys on Wall Street and inside the beltway in D.C. mucked up the economy. We’d like to get back to that stability, because we invest a lot in our people.

          I know there are good people out there who will work hard, but there does seem to be a strata out there without a serious work ethic. My gut feel is that there are more of them today than in the past.

          • Lodi, Wisconsin

            Glad to hear you are doing well as a company.

            It’s not a work ethic issue, it’s a lifestyle issue. A different generation is choosing a different lifestyle and who’s to say whether it’s better or worse? My daughter is 20 and has had life experiences I never had. Is that good or bad? Despite the “work ethic” of my parents and in-laws, it’s readily apparent that their lifestyle is not sustainable either. My Dad still has to work full-time at age 70 and my father-in-law has to work part-time at age 77 due to medical bills and other circumstance.

          • JohnTorinus

            Interesting. I would like to hear more about “lifestyle” changes and how it affects work life. Some good insights have come through on that slice at this complicated subject. Is the 5X8 work week a dead duck?

  • OK, here’s one of the issues I see among younger people (age 22-27) and working. They can remain on their parent’s group health insurance until age 27 in Wisconsin, so that problem is solved. Sorry, but even the top starting wage Serigraph is offering is peanuts for many in this age range. We have a neighbor who has a son living at home and the son does pay room and board. The son waits tables at a decent chain restaurant in the evenings and can easily make $100 per night in tips (I’m sure he doesn’t declare a fraction of what he makes). In the summer he cuts grass and can make $40 per hour doing 3 to 4 lawns per day (mostly in our neighborhood. Again, I am sure he doesn’t declare a dime of it. He can build 2-3 websites per month for small businesses and makes a profit of at least $500 each. He takes graduation photos in the spring and summer and undercuts the professional studios by $$$. He’s a real entrepreneur who probably makes close to $5000 per month, doesn’t need benefits, sets his own hours for the most part and seems to be enjoying life. He’s a college graduate. He has a girlfriend and marriage is the last thing on his mind. I admit he’s from an upper middle class family, but there’s an underground economy that is supporting many families. This is what we’ve come to and I think it’s going to be very hard to change.

    • JohnTorinus

      Most interesting. Again, it looks like the old 5X8 work week may be a dinosaur in a more flexible world. .

  • Unemployed in Racine

    I cna’t

  • Unemployed in Racine

    I can’t speak for the 22-27, I am 48 part of my problem is lack of flexibility. Our aged parents are now falling on us! They need care and that appears to be part of the struggle. (Doctor’s, meal prep, laundry etc. add in two hours a day commuting and at $9-13 with benefits it is a net loss to work outside the home. Lets add my fist job paid 9.75/ Hr with 10% PA raises within 15 years I was making $250K and my job was 24/7. Not much time for my Parents.

    I downgraded during the recession working as a Temp at $25/Hr, with highly flexible hours. My mom became home bound and now I exist on my investments and unemployment. The thing that is missing is interaction with other adults, I am looking for a job now. They still demand 24/7 commitment at less than my temp wage.With out advancement opportunities, or a pension. I am perplexed..

    As for work ethic I think that has not changed, however, different priorities have taken up some of the work.

    As for the 22-27 year old’d i can only look at my son. His employer schedules his employees for 32-35/Hr for 3 weeks and then 25 the fourth. (doesn’t pay benefits and pays 1/2 bonus for part-time employees) My son works those hours mostly Friday Sat – Sunday) and then goes to school full-time. Younger work ethic lost. I think not.

    BTW he make $12/hr in retail plus his his monthly !/2 bonus of $600- $1,000 per month, but still does’t’ believe his employer gives a damn. He works hard for his own pride.

    I could write a book about what is going on now, but I will stop here!

    • JohnTorinus

      I agree that a good number of employers deserve the loyalty they get.

      We do give a full package of benefits here, and the health package alone costs about $4000 per person, $9,000 for family coverage.

      One answer for you might be a business you can run from home. Sounds like you have saleable skills.

  • Another factor: transportation costs. Serigraph is located well outside the urbanized area. From what little I know about Washington County real estate values my guess is no one in an entry level job there could afford to live anywhere near it. If you already have a car and are paying those fixed costs, that’s one thing. If you’re biking or taking a bus to a job nearer to your home you would have to earn a considerable amount of money to just to break even. Thanks to our efforts, justified or not, to protect our children from dying in traffic accidents while in high school, we have raised a generation that simply doesn’t think about the automobile the way you and I did.

    • Lodi, Wisconsin

      Agreed. Give the younger generation credit for doing the math, at least for their immediate needs. A 25-year old living in the city can use transit, bicycle or ride with friends to the $10-15 per hour wait staff and bar tending jobs downtown, and when all else fails they can use a taxi. Why would they use two gallons of gas at $7.50 per day – not to mention insurance and vehicle maintenance – for the 45-mile round trip to Washington County to earn the same pay? And frankly, the downtown restaurant job suits their personal preferences better for flexible hours and very few morning shifts.

      Perhaps Serigraph could offer some type of free shuttle service to two or three likely areas in the city. Many Chicago employers do the same, offering free shuttle service from the train stations. A few years back I talked to a major tourism business in the Spring Green area that shuttled workers from UW-Platteville due to a lack of local labor.

      • JohnTorinus

        Good point. We did do job rides from Milwaukee back in the 1990s when there were labor shortages. Some of the people moved out here eventually.

        But, I don’t think it’s a transportation issue at the core. The jobless rate is high out here, as I reported in the initial column.

        It looks to be a change in how people view their work lives. It almost seems like the Twitter generation is too distracted to work a 5X8 work week.

        Further thoughts?

        • John

          Two major problems:

          1. People get paid too well on unemployment (or would rather be paid to not work than to work, whether that amount is greater or not), which is why they apply for positions at Serigraph but have no intention of working there. This is also likely to be a contributing factor for why good part-time help stops showing up when they’re promoted to full-time (they would lose their partial unemployment status, and thus, those checks).

          2. Many people live beyond their means. If someone can’t afford to work for $9-13 per hour, maybe it’s because they’re spending too much? How much is the mortgage or car loan; maybe they bought a house or car you can’t afford?

          The truth is that if people had enough pride and self-respect for themselves, they would find a way. Hard work is rewarded, but no great gains are ever achieved unless they are earned. Unfortunately, too many people aren’t willing to make the sacrifices or invest the time and effort necessary to succeed. Political correctness has helped stripped this country of it’s pride because it is no longer acceptable for people to guilt or hold others accountable for not doing it the right way. Sad

          • JohnTorinus

            Your insight about some of the applicants just doing the required steps to stay on unemployment compensation make a lot of sense. That would explain the no call-backs and the no shows.

  • Tbone

    Hey John, don’t complain to much because you used to have a great group of people with an excellent work ethic, but you and your company decided to let those people go. These people have moved on to other jobs or school and switched careers. They have absolutely no intention of returning to your company.

    • JohnTorinus

      Well, Tbone, We have already hired back a good number of the people who were laid off during the Great Recession. We are happy to have them back and they are happy to be back.
      Would you have preferred the company to go under and everyone lose their jobs? You obviously have never run a business in bad times. We tried to make the separations as humane as we could, including generous packages.
      To use your bumper stick logic and langauge, stuff happens. When it does, you have to deal.

  • Keb

    Do you have on-site day care? Do you support mass transit so that you can hire workers from outlying areas? Or, at the very least, do you offer van and bus transportation to help offset the almost $4/gallon cost of gas? Will the tax breaks you will be receiving translate to a less-embarrassing hourly wage? If the answer to any of the above questions is “no,” then I think we know why you can’t find reliable workers. You are putting in even less effort than they are. As for expecting people to be loyal to your company, I’m wondering if your own family members were among those you laid off or whether they are still riding the gravy train.

    • JohnTorinus

      You, madam, are a cynic. Why don’t you try running a company.

      • tbone

        Wonderful reply John. So when someone questions or rebuttals an article you wrote right away you come back with the good old line “Why don’t you run your own company” or “you do not know anything about running a business”.
        I guess those of us who don’t run companies are totally clueless of anything and you have all the answers right?

        • JohnTorinus

          Well, Tbone, you guys in the cheap seats don’t show a lot of respect. It ain’t easy to run a company.

          • tbone

            Well John it is those of us in the cheap seats who are the ones that get ripped a new one if you know what I mean when it comes to companies cutting costs. I never see the higher ups ever taking the hits nor do I ever see you guys showing respect when you are giving it out.Its not easy sitting in those cheap seats when you get kicked out of them on numerous occasions.