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Diversity program a 'win, win, win'

Sunday News Correspondent

June 02. 2012 8:31PM
Justin Houle works on the manufacturing floor of Johnson Precision in Hudson. The company's successful program allows non-traditional employees to work side-by-side with their co-workers in every department of the facility. (Julie Hanson/Union Leader Correspondent)

HUDSON - Kelvin Smith is well-versed in every aspect of manufacturing, mechanical testing and mailroom operations at Johnson Precision.

As he makes his rounds, Smith greets co-workers by name, often referencing some inside joke or upcoming birthday that he never forgets. Job mastery is expected in any position. The camaraderie is an unexpected benefit of a diversity program that brought Smith to the company two years ago. The program integrates workers with special needs in the workplace.

'They do the same work (under the) same expectations as everybody else,' said Craig Heinselman, director of program management.

Johnson Precision is a plastics molding and assembly company that puts about 80 percent of its production work into medical components. The company was started in Amherst in 1982 and was purchased by CEPS of West Lebanon in 2010. When all operations were moved to the Amherst facility, the company's three 'non-traditional' workers also transferred to the new location.

'We knew it was going to work'

Introducing the program seemed like a good opportunity to bridge CEPS and Johnson Precision together in a positive way, Heinselman said.

'It was not a big leap of faith,' Heinselman said. 'We already knew it was going to work.'

For about three years, the company had been partnering with Pathways of the Upper Valley, employing two to four special-needs workers for a variety of roles from manufacturing to clerical work.

Johnson Precision currently works with Opportunity Networks to provide three part-time, non-traditional employees. The agency supplies workers to see if they're a fit and provides a job coach on-site to help its workers with transportation, paperwork, and one-on-one assistance, when necessary. They can also perform emergency medical treatment.

The Amherst facility was closed last December, and its 60 full-time employees, including its non-traditional members, moved to Hudson.

Some benefits were immediate. The non-traditional workers earned a good pay rate, and the company received tax credits. Other changes happened over time as the 'traditional' employees, exposed to a new diversity, began to see each other in a new light.

'It brings fundamental changes to their lives,' Heinselman said.

The new perspective boosted morale. Trainers changed how they explained things, communication increased, and a team environment flourished.

Heinselman watched as friendships between co-workers stretched beyond the workplace. When a long-time employee passed away, traditional and non-traditional workers grieved together. It showed that what they did every day went far beyond the company walls.

'They really had an impact on each other's lives,' Heinselman said.

Realizing that impact increased fulfillment and added motivation beyond earning a paycheck, Heinselman said. Smith, who once was more reserved, now advocates for his peers.

'We see the human success, and that's what's really important,' Heinselman said.

'It's our disability'

Lead assembler Renee Regione is responsible for handing out assignments. She enjoys working with the program and looks forward to seeing her colleagues each day.

'I just love these guys,' Regione said. 'You couldn't take them out of my life no matter what.'

She doesn't see them as needing special attention, Regione said, they've become part of the family. They're assigned the same amount of work as everyone else, she said.

'If you give them a job you know it's going to get done right. There's just no question,' Regione said.

Director of Human Resources Michelle Mountain said the success is a result of patience, kindness and structure. The non-traditional employees are motivated simply by a desire to come in and do a good job, she said

'They come in every day with the most can-do attitude, and they are such a morale booster,' Mountain said.

In most cases, the employees are far more capable than expected, she said.

'It's our disability in not being able to see what they can do,' Mountain said.

The program has been accepted by employees from the manufacturing floor to the corner office, Mountain said.

'To make the program a success, it has to be embraced from the top down' at any company that agrees to participate with organizations such as Pathways, she said.

That was certainly the case at Johnson Precision. Company President James Umland has been involved with non-traditional employee programs for some years, and he hopes to expand the program at Johnson Precision, eventually.

'It's a win, win, win,' Umland said. The regular, full-time employees feel better about themselves and their jobs as they train non-traditional workers, and new workers gain confidence as they become proficient in their new positions.

An unexpected benefit was realized when customers began to recognize and appreciate the program, too, Umland said.

'The company wins,' Umland said. 'They're good, reliable employees who are upbeat, consistent, and very, very productive.'

People interested in learning more about programs like Pathways and Opportunity Networks were invited to an open house last week at Johnson Precision, where there were tours, interactive events and entertainment, along with lunch and dinner.

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