For one manufacturer, providing educational opportunities is key to past and future success

workforce training
Editor's note:

This is the second section of “Employer Perspectives on Workforce Development,” a series that examines how business leaders are adapting to the future of work.

John Hazen White Jr. is owner, chairman, and CEO of Taco Comfort Solutions (Taco). Originally known as the Thermal Appliance Company, Taco is a family-owned HVAC manufacturer based in Cranston, Rhode Island. The White family has owned and operated Taco for three generations, and John Hazen White Jr. has led the company since the early 1990s. Taco is a private company with just over 500 domestic employees and just under 400 international employees.

As discussed in the introductory post to this series, manufacturing firms are currently operating in a difficult hiring environment. The National Association of Manufacturing (NAM) warns that “[t]here are more than half a million open jobs in manufacturing right now” in the U.S. and characterizes the situation as “a growing crisis: too many manufacturing jobs and not enough workers to fill them.” The longtime leader of a family-owned manufacturing company, White offers his perspective on these hiring challenges as well as the practices that have for years been central to Taco’s workforce development efforts. In particular, White highlights his long-term approach to employee education and training in partnership with local education institutions. This strategy echoes expert recommendations that employers partner with local education institutions to create robust talent pipelines. White’s perspective provides insight into the role and value of these programs.

Today’s hiring environment

While a great deal of attention is paid to how technological changes are shaping the workforce, White highlights how the looming generational turnover is shaping his workforce needs. From his perspective, the “baby boomer exodus is a very real thing” with real consequences. In a company like White’s with very low turnover—he estimates the average tenure as 20-some years—the loss of knowledge when employees who have been with the company for 30-40 years leave is a sobering reality.

“In a company like White’s with very low turnover, … the loss of knowledge when employees who have been with the company for 30-40 years leave is a sobering reality.”

Compounding this problem, and reflecting the statistics cited by NAM, White notes that “recruiting is very difficult,” and that it is especially difficult to hire people at higher-level positions. Further, White views it as unlikely that employees in younger generations are likely to remain with the company for as long as their predecessors. He describes how 25-30 years ago, “People came to work, had a job, generally would want to stay in that job for a career or half of a career. … Today, it’s a whole different scenario.” In his experience, members of younger generations are less likely to seek a career with one company and are more likely to move around, a shift from the prior generation’s approach.

On the upside, White notes that younger generations are usually more familiar with technology and, as a result, are likely to require less training on certain aspects of their job. White is not alone on valuing this trait among the younger generation; a 2015 report notes that “[affinity] for technology is widely recognized as an asset among young workers, a strength most explicitly identified by IT firms.” White’s perspective suggests that this familiarity with technology is valuable outside of IT, an observation echoed by other employers interviewed for this series.

Nonetheless, the impending, large-scale turnover in longtime employees from the previous generation–as White puts it, an “exodus”–looms large in White’s view of the hiring landscape. Although technological changes are often a large part of current conversations around hiring and training, White frames the challenge in terms of this generational turning point.

Keeping pace with training and education needs

With the impending boomer exodus, particularly at a company like Taco where the average employee has been with the company for decades, training and development of a new and relatively inexperienced workforce is a high priority. Companies in this position without pre-existing training systems would likely find themselves scrambling to meet this need. Taco, however, has for many years embraced in-house training and education, provided through partnerships with local education institutions. Facing the prospect of widespread turnover in the workforce, White describes his company’s in-house training program as an essential part of the solution.

“Taco has decades of experience in employee education and development, a strength that can help develop new talent and provide a buffer against the wave of retirements that White anticipates.”

White characterizes Taco as being ahead of the curve with respect to employee training; the Taco website describes the company as “an early pioneer in workplace training and education.” Specifically, the company established the Taco Learning Center (TLC) in the early 1990s. The TLC includes “space for classrooms, labs, and a library/reading room” to promote what the company describes as a “dual purpose which continues to this day: Train Taco workers in job-related skills and tasks [and] [p]rovide educational & personal enrichment opportunities.” Taco thus has decades of experience in employee education and development, a strength that can help develop new talent and provide a buffer against the wave of retirements that White anticipates.

Many of Taco’s educational pathway opportunities are a product of collaborations with local institutions of education, including Roger Williams University, the University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island, Bryant University, Johnson and Wales, and Rhode Island College. Through such partnerships, Taco offers employees opportunities to earn degrees from a GED through a master’s degree, receiving full reimbursement for tuition, books, materials, and other related expenses.

Many experts concerned about the skills gap and workforce development describe these partnerships as key levers in building a sustainable talent pipeline. Writing for the Investing in America’s Workforce series, Katherine McClelland observes: “Some of the most promising initiatives across the country involve local industries partnering with nearby high schools, community colleges, or college systems to bring relevant classes to their institutions, while also bringing students into the workplace to gain on-the-job experience.” Organizations like the American Association of Community Colleges endorse this approach and have created programs to facilitate these partnerships, while states and localities have adopted policies to support the development of educator-employee collaborations. In previous work, I explore the role of employer-community college partnerships and find that these partnerships are an invaluable resource.

White’s point of view echoes these recommendations. Based on his long-term experience working with Rhode Island’s institutions of higher education, White describes these partnerships as crucial to Taco’s success. White observes “what a mistake it would be not to play off of that strength” of local educational institutions, explaining the essential role these partners play: “I can’t afford to hire a staff of faculty members, nor can I afford to have my own people off the job teaching.” To White, partnering with educators is good business and common sense, and it is central to Taco’s approach of providing development opportunities for his employees.

But for many firms, such partnerships are not an established part of their training and education practices. While good illustrations of these partnerships abound, a recent report from The Brookings Institution and The National Center for the Middle Market finds that only 30% of middle market firms partner with educational or training organizations. While this number may vary for firms of different sizes, this research suggests that, in general, the type of education partnerships White discusses as central to Taco’s talent development appear to be more the exception than the rule. What needs to happen for employers to invest in these strategies? Researchers at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program argue that a key part of the solution lies in employers recognizing the “critical importance of integrating workforce development into business strategy.”

Investing in employees

White doesn’t use precisely those terms, but his leadership style is imbued with a commitment to his employees. With respect to automation and newer technologies, White observes, “The one thing that never, ever, ever becomes obsolete are people. They’re always trainable. So, investment in that is what brings you continued improvement, continued growth.” Amid predictions about the impending displacement caused by automation–a 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that about 50% “of current work activities are technically automatable by adapting currently demonstrated technologies”–White offers a compelling argument for investing in employees, particularly through education and training partnerships that simultaneously serve his company’s and employees’ interests.

“The one thing that never, ever, ever becomes obsolete are people. They’re always trainable. So, investment in that is what brings you continued improvement, continued growth.” — John Hazen White Jr.

Investment in employees has served as a guiding principle throughout White’s career. As he explains, “The value of what we do is far beyond ‘Can a guy run a machine?’ [It’s more about] ‘Can this person’s life be made better, can his family’s life be made better.’” At first glance, it may seem unclear how this type of philosophy translates into actionable recommendations or aligns with best practices related to workforce development. Indeed, White explains that this kind of ethos is “a lifestyle, it’s not a magic bullet.”

However, there are valuable lessons here in terms of the type of leadership and culture that can help companies address the misalignment of employee preparation and employer needs. Consider, for example, a recent survey by the Harvard Business School and Boston Consulting Group that asked 6,500 business leaders and 11,000 workers across 11 countries about their perspectives on the future of work. The researchers found that “[w]orkers are seeking more support and guidance to prepare themselves for future employment than management is providing.” Further, in all but two of the countries surveyed, “[S]ignificant majorities of workers reported that they—and not their government or their employer—were responsible for equipping themselves to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving workplace.” In this context, workers identified “insufficient support from their employers” as one major obstacle they faced, in addition to “a lack of knowledge about their options; a lack of time to prepare for the future; high training costs; the impact that taking time off for training would have on wages.”

As the researchers point out–and consistent with White’s approach–there is an important role for employers to play in terms of education and training. They recommend that employers create a “learning culture,” offering opportunities for continuous learning that extend beyond on-boarding or other isolated trainings specific to a particular task or technology. With the fast pace of technological change, they argue that “companies need to shift to a continuous-learning model—one that repeatedly enhances employees’ skills and makes formal training broadly available.” This argument is consistent with recommendations discussed in the introduction to this series that employers develop internal training and career advancement programs.

Employer-led solutions

Employer investment in talent development is foundational to workforce development efforts. White is clear that it not only takes work to build a company committed to investing in its people, but also takes effort to maintain: “I’m fighting very hard to maintain the principles by which I built this business.” In his experience, investing in employees is something worth fighting for. Fortunately, White is not alone in this fight. The analysis throughout this series suggests a consensus has developed across a variety of workforce development experts: Employers have an important leadership role to play in providing opportunities for their employees to acquire the skills and knowledge that employers value.

Read the next section of “Employer Perspectives on Workforce Development,” or visit the series homepage.

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John Hazen White Jr. provides general, unrestricted support to The Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are not influenced by any donation. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment.


  • Footnotes
    1. At the same time, employers are not the only ones with a role to play. The same report advocates that “business, education, government, and philanthropic part­ners … should support workforce intermediaries and employer partnerships to meet the workforce needs of targeted industries and create more routes to better jobs and career advancement for entry-level workers.”