The Manufacturing Industry: Building Back Fast

Despite turbulence caused by labor and supply chain challenges, the manufacturing industry is experiencing a positive trajectory as it recovers from the pandemic.


In the competitive arena of economic development decision-making, answering the “Where are we going?” question leads to an equally critical query: “How fast can we get there?”

Fueled by the Virginia Talent Accelerator Program, Virginia now has a simple answer for companies and site consultants: “Faster than ever.”

manufacturing industry
With Virginia Talent Accelerator Program support, Morgan Olson has reduced new hire turnover by 80% relative to the rates the company experiences in other states. (Photo: VEDP)

In partnership with Michigan-based Morgan Olson, North America’s leading manufacturer of all-aluminum walk-in step vans, the Virginia Talent Accelerator Program has conducted its first speed test: recruiting, onboarding, and training managers, fabricators, and assemblers for the company’s new facility outside Danville in Southern Virginia. The original plan projected that it would take three years for the operation to reach 703 employees. With Virginia Talent Accelerator Program support, Morgan Olson is on track to reach that milestone in half the time, reducing new hire turnover by 80% relative to the rates the company experiences in other states.

“The process has been great and the resources to get us established in a new area have been phenomenal,” noted former Morgan Olson Vice President of Human Resources Brent Butler during the initial training process. “The Virginia Talent Accelerator Program has been an extremely valuable resource to partner with.”

The program launched in 2019 as a collaboration between the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) and the Virginia Community College System. Its objective is to accelerate the timetable for new and expanding companies to start up their facilities in the Commonwealth by helping them get off to a quicker start. The program’s world-class instructional designers, 3D animators, videographers, and graphic designers make this happen in partnership with the company by providing customized recruitment and training services at no cost to the company.

When IKEA announced in July 2019 it would shut down its 925,000-square-foot facility at Cane Creek Centre Industrial Park, the facility wasn’t on Morgan Olson’s radar. The company had been performing reconnaissance around the country to secure the site of its fourth expansion in six years, laying out ambitious site selection criteria: an existing building with ceilings of 26 feet or higher, a minimum of 500,000 square feet of manufacturing floor space, and 100 acres of developable real estate.

“Things skinny down really quickly when you’re looking for a big space like that,” said David Halladay, vice president of operations for Morgan Olson.

With several of Morgan Olson’s vehicle production programs evolving and several promising new programs on the horizon, the company decided a 500,000-square-foot facility would no longer be sufficient—and the 925,000-square-foot IKEA facility fit the bill.

With a real estate option in hand, Virginia was now able to offer a customized training solution through the Virginia Talent Accelerator Program. The timing synced up ideally for Morgan Olson to become the first company to benefit from the program.

In October 2019, just three months after IKEA announced its departure, Virginia officials, Morgan Olson leadership, and other key players gathered in Danville to make the official announcement. It was now time to get rolling: hiring, onboarding, and training the 703 new employees who would contribute to the assembly of the aluminum walk-in step vans making deliveries to homes and businesses across the country.

After the announcement, Virginia Talent Accelerator Program staff and representatives from Danville Community College (DCC) visited a Morgan Olson plant in Tennessee to get a better sense of the company’s plans, requirements, and vision for the Danville facility. This included observing the assembly process and conversing with Morgan Olson’s operations, human resources, and training leaders. Then, in the three months between the trip to Tennessee and the onset of hiring, the team developed training materials fully customized to Morgan Olson’s unique processes, equipment procedures and standards.

Former IKEA employees received priority consideration for Morgan Olson’s open positions. Once candidates applied, they were screened in preemployment sessions focused on core skills: assembly, riveting, and quality inspection.

“In general, the prehire screening was valuable and saved us time,” Butler said. “It gave us a broader look at individuals.”

At the nearby Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, Virginia Talent Accelerator Program trainers began their instruction aided by photos, simulations, broadcast-quality videos, and 3D animations illustrating Morgan Olson’s production processes.

Training for production team members included an introduction to tools and equipment, safety procedures, and skills such as riveting and quality inspection. The technical training culminated with trainees building the cab of a step van. Soft skills, including communication skills and Lean principles, are equally important components of production training.

Team leads, supervisors, and managers were immersed in a 160-hour Leadership Academy to equip them with skills that enable Morgan Olson’s collaborative culture, tackling topics including emotional intelligence, managing conflict, and managing across generations.

“I’ve worked with workforce development programs in four different states throughout the Southeast,” said Steven Parker, general manager at the Danville-Pittsylvania County facility. “[The] Virginia Talent Accelerator has been the most engaged that I’ve worked with. They have such a talented and diverse team that covers all the needs for a company new to the area.”