Tractor factory brings jobs & challenges to Jackson, MN

JACKSON, Minn. - When she gave up her Minneapolis art studies for marriage and a family in southern Minnesota, Danyelle Hansen could not have imagined the elevated status she would obtain with her kids.

The petite mother of a six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl is dwarfed by the massive powertrain standing beside her.

"They think it's awesome," she smiles. "Mom builds tractors."

Awesome is a pretty good word to describe what's been happening in Jackson.

The changes started in 2001 when AGCO, the world's third largest farm equipment manufacturer, bought Ag-Chem, a family owned agricultural sprayer company based in Jackson.

AGCO continued growing the business, but things really took off two years ago when the company moved production of its high horsepower Massey Ferguson and Challenger tractors for the North American market, from France, to Jackson.

"The overriding factor was people, the quality of the people here," says Eric Fisher, director of operations at the Jackson plant. Georgia-based AGCO brought production stateside, in part, to keep assembly close to its core customers, the farmers who till the fields in America's heartland.

The first Jackson-built tractor rolled off the assembly line in the fall of 2011 and was signed by plant workers. Since then, employment at the factory has continued to grow: from 850 workers when the tractor expansion began to nearly 1,400 today.

Jackson, with a population of just 3,300 people, is recording job growth any small town would envy, but not without bumps in the road.

For starters, unemployment is now so low AGCO is struggling to find qualified workers.

"It's a challenge for us to grow," says Fisher, who finds his plant competing for the same type of workers now in high demand in the oil patch of North Dakota. Welders are in particularly high demand.

Fisher says AGCO has formed partnerships with Minnesota West Community & Technical College to insure students have access to the tools and training they'll need to be ready for jobs with AGCO. But the company isn't leaving all the educational work to others.

"This is where we have the assembly academy," says Jason Mueller, the plant's human resources director, as he escorts visitors to a classroom with several work benches stocked with hand tools. Here AGCO teaches skills as basic as wrench handling, to smart, but otherwise mechanically inexperienced, perspective hires.

Fisher says the academy reflects a philosophy developed in southeast Minnesota's tight labor market.

"You want to first hire the right type of individual; then you supplement that with the skills," he says.

Dulce Gilmore falls into that category. The young mom graduated with a biology degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Now she carefully lowers diesel engines into $250,000 tractors.

Assemblers on the line get good benefits with starting pay just shy of $14 an hour, a salary unattainable at many workplaces in rural Minnesota.

"I did not picture myself building tractors, but this is where life took me," says Gilmore.

Farther down the line, her boyfriend, Al Holo, performs the initial start-up and tests on the engines Gilmore has just installed.

Their children attend daycare with a provider who has adjusted her hours to meet the schedules of workers on AGCO's first shift, which starts at 5:30 a.m. "She opens at 5:00, but she'll open at 4:00 if we need to go in earlier," says Holo, who worked in the trucking industry before a friend convinced him of the opportunities at AGCO.

"When I decided to make a change, I knew I wanted to go to AGCO," he says.

Workers like Holo and Gilmore now fill nearly every available house and apartment in Jackson, another challenge for the plant and its host city.

"Most of those people are traveling into the community because they can't find a place to live here," says Sue Pirsig, economic development coordinator for the city of Jackson.

According to Mueller, roughly a third of AGCO's workers live in Jackson, while "a third are within a 30 mile radius and the remaining third is beyond 30 miles." Some workers commute more than 50 miles to the plant.

Both AGCO and the city would benefit by keeping workers closer to the plant - and their dollars in Jackson.

Help came earlier this month when the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority awarded funding for construction of a 48 unit mixed income townhome project.

AGCO provided $220,000 for the townhome project, recognizing the need for available housing to attract workers to the factory.

"Jackson needs to be a thriving growing community so we can be a thriving growing business," says Fisher.

In Jackson, tractors built for growing corn and soybeans are growing opportunities too.


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