As Tuscaloosa native Hugh Thomas tells it, his career switch from advertising to industrial staffing happened around 1996 after a friend introduced him to Keith Phillips, who owned InStaff Personnel in Dallas.
“My friend and I had always looked for something to invest in, ” says Thomas, who at the time worked as an account executive at Lewis Communications in Birmingham. “Keith was impressive, so the three of us got together and discussed the opportunity to expand what he was doing in Texas to Alabama. Ultimately, he [Keith] sold his interest in his Texas operation and moved over here, and he and I started working together ever since.”
Phillips had opened InStaff in 1993, and after Thomas joined the firm in 1996, they opened offices in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. But during the late 1990s, says Thomas, the labor market was tight due to low unemployment, and recruiting enough contingent workers to meet their clients’ demands meant working long hours.
“Back then, we were a do-whatever-it-takes operation, ” says Thomas. “My first experience with the automotive industry was in the Mercedes plant through a supplier, and our folks were cleaning paint booths. Back in my early days, I was out there on third shift, taking folks in and putting them in the hazmat suits.”
Renamed Onin Staffing by 2007, today the company, for which Thomas is a managing partner, is the privately held industrial and light clerical staffing division of the Birmingham-based Onin Group. The Onin Group includes several other brands such as Excelsior Staffing, A3 Solutions, Focus IT and Onin Professional Search among others.
Onin Staffing has about 420 employees or “Oninites” at 93 locations across the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. Onin recruits and places contingent workers in long- and short-term jobs.
Onin Staffing’s parent company, the Onin Group, made Inc. magazine’s 2016 list of the 5, 000 Fastest Growing Companies in the United States with $284 million in revenue.
Onin Group’s Director of People and Culture, Blake Stevens, says that overall, Onin Staffing handles an estimated 11, 000 contingent workers a week. Of that number, Thomas says about 30 percent work with automotive manufacturing suppliers. The workers include assembly line workers, injection molding assembly workers, auto technicians and production specialists.
Onin Staffing eschews the word “temps, ” instead referring to members of its contingent workforce as “teammates, ” whether they are on short-term assignments or have worked with Onin for years.
“We consider them to be more than just temps, ” says Thomas, “which is a commonly used term in our trade. We like to distance ourselves from it because we pour more into them than most companies, and we want them to have the full array of benefits.”
Onin Staffing offers its teammates medical insurance and has an employee assistance program for those needing short-term counseling services. In addition, the company has a scholarship program for teammates desiring to continue their education by attending college, taking certification courses or enrolling in job or skilled trades training.
But, according to a summer 2015 issue of the Onin Group’s magazine, Hired, another reason for the name change has to do with the growing number of businesses — and manufacturers in particular — that are turning to temporary service agencies to help fill their labor gaps. In fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics researchers released a study in January showing that in 2003, 4.6 percent of production workers and 13.4 percent of low-skilled manual laborers were temporary service hires. By 2015, those percentages jumped to 7.3 percent and 17.9 percent respectively.
Subsequently, the business world’s perception of temporary agencies has changed, Thomas says. Today, companies like Onin Staffing have gone from being a “red-headed stepchild” in the business world to a strategic partner.
“People after the Great Recession saw it as a best business practice to include temporary employees as a higher percentage of their employee mix, ” he says. “So when a recession comes again, they’re laying off our employees instead of theirs.”
And, as in the early days of Onin Staffing, the labor market is tight again, says Thomas. The U.S. unemployment rate stands at about 4.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In a tough, competitive job market like this one, says Thomas, Oninites have to work even harder these days to not only recruit teammates, but also help them succeed on the job. For example, for their larger clients, Onin will often send representatives to the job site to make sure the teammates become acclimatized to the new work environment as soon as possible. The representatives will, for example, introduce teammates to client supervisors and check on them throughout the day to ensure they are able to perform the assigned duties.
“You get people in a fast-paced environment and everybody knows what they’re doing in there, but for people who are new to the game, we want to shepherd that process, ” he says.
“We have to be able to perform, ” says Thomas. “We always bring them a high level of service and do innovative things to be the best, so that we make their jobs easier. Once you gain their trust, that we can actually do the job and solve problems for them, then that develops trust and long-lasting relationships.”
To be competitive, says Thomas, the staffing company takes steps to ensure that they supply their clients with teammates who have the skills their clients want. In some instances, that has meant organizing job training for teammates.
“In some cases, where there were not enough people with the particular skills working at our clients’ location, we’ve asked them to allow us to set up a training scenario inside their facility to get people who might have been on the cusp of having the skills, but they need polishing or need further training, ” he says. “So we will invest in that way, too.”
Thomas says he and his partners have made it a point over the years to invest back into the company and run it conservatively. The strategy proved especially beneficial during the nation’s financial crisis and the downturn of the auto industry from 2008 to 2010.
“It was a terrible time, ” he says. “We lost 40 percent of our business….We were able to hang in because we had the resources and the assets because we were running ourselves conservatively all those years and were prepared for a rainy day.”
Though auto manufacturers are utilizing more automation, Thomas is not too worried.
“I think there are certain jobs that automation simply cannot take over, ” he says. “That doesn’t bother me as much. Being able to locate motivated workers and keep them on board is my primary concern right now. I can place more people out there than I have. We could put a lot more people to work. There is a big worker shortage now.”
Looking back on his career, Thomas says he still enjoys visiting his clients’ manufacturing facilities, watching the machines turn out parts and seeing how people make a living every day.
“When you get clients for whom you’ve developed a business and personal relationship, they don’t look at you as a vendor, but a partner, ” says Thomas. “When you have that partnership mentality, then it’s clicking on all cylinders, and that’s the best arrangement for everybody.”
text By GAIL ALLYN SHORT // Photos by CARY NORTON