By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — As part of a fact-finding mission, a representative for Governor Scott Walker visited Timber Technologies in Colfax.
Cindy Polzin, senior director of legislative and local affairs, said during her visit on July 23 that she was visiting a number of counties and a variety of businesses.
“What makes you tick? How are your workers? What could we do better on the state level? What is hurting? What is helping? … You know what’s going in your county better than anyone ever will. It’s a learning trip,” Polzin said.
Eric Turner, director of Dunn County Economic Development, said he had taken Polzin to tour Shape Products in Menomonie and also had wanted her to see a manufacturing operation in a small town.
When asked about her job duties, Polzin replied, “I am the governor’s lobbyist, for lack of a better word, to the entire state Legislature … I run his agenda through the Legislature. Any other bills that come from the Legislature to us, I help negotiate and answer basic questions, like, ‘when is my bill going to be signed into law?’ and I plan bill signings … I do a little bit of everything.”
Timber Technologies, owned by Tom Niska and Dale Schiferl, manufactures glue laminated (glulam) wood posts, columns, and beams for pole sheds and other post frame buildings.
“I can talk as a small employer about what could or could not help … We’re not welders here and we don’t have a technical trade. We are a unique business. There are about 20 glulam plants in whole country that make a glue laminated wood product. And out of those 20, there’s about five that make specifically for pole barns or post-frame applications … we also do headers, pretty architectural stuff that you would see in a fancy lodge or a church,” Niska said.
Most of the workers at Timber Technologies are trained on the job, he said.
“You won’t hear us talking about the skilled labor. What we need is people who have basic skills sets. How to fill out an application. How to get out of bed every day. How to work five days a week instead of four. The basic life skills. What can the governor do about that? God bless you if you can figure that out,” Niska said.
“As the economy has gotten a little better the last couple of years, that’s what we have struggled with, the general labor issues … one of my complaints a few years ago would have been, when people get unemployment, let’s not make it so there’s no incentive to get off. That’s gotten a little better over the past few years. We want to help people when they’re down, but at the same time, when they can get a year’s worth, it demotivates them to get out there and look. But that’s less of an issue now than it was in (2008 and 2009),” he said.
Polzin said she has been hearing about that from various employers concerning the difficulty of finding workers and motivating people to work rather than drawing unemployment.
Polzin did not mention the wages paid by the companies that are complaining or how those wages might compare to the unemployment compensation.
Polzin also said she has been hearing quite a lot about workers’ compensation.
“It’s just that it’s expensive. Like any insurance, it’s not cheap,” Niska said.
Timber Technologies employs about 17 people. Companies that are larger, with 50 or more employees, have a better economy of scale and can offer dental insurance on top of medical insurance. Timber Tech offers medical and pays 90 percent of the employee’s health insurance and half of the spouse’s health insurance, he said.
In response to a question about wages, Niska said, “We’re in the ballpark, but some companies can pay more. That knocks you down a little bit. In a small town, there’s not much transparency on wages. We find out when, all of a sudden, three guys leave for Menard’s Distribution Center, for example … then you find out they had a job fair and they are offering $14 or $15 an hour, and now they’ve set the bar. Then we have to come back and readjust.”
Other small business needs include money for infrastructure updates, such as a rail spur for the industrial park, he said.
Polzin noted that she hears about money for rail spurs everywhere she goes.
Scott Gunnufson, village president, said he would like to see a rail spur added that would run through the Colfax industrial park so that all of the businesses could access it.
“We are really trying to aim the village around using the rail system … Menomonie, Chippewa and Eau Claire do not necessarily have good rail access in their industrial parks,” Gunnufson said.
“There are grants out there, 50/50 grants for rail, but we are always looking for different options to help out not only this business but all of the businesses along this stretch,” he said.
“It’s really hard to find rail access. When my partner and I started looking for buildings 11 or 12 years ago, one of the things we were really trying to find was something with rail. And it was almost impossible. This town has a public spur that anyone can use. It’s four blocks away, but it’s the closest we could get. Most of these towns, when they rip the spur out, it doesn’t come back,” Niska said.
“We ship in lumber all day. It’s a commodity. And it’s a big part of our expense for our products. We ship in from Arkansas, the Pacific Northwest, Canada, both east and west, sometimes Idaho,” he said.
Timber Technologies started operating in Colfax in 2003.