Visitors to the shop floor at AirPro Fan in Rhinelander are greeted by a wall of sound and activity.
Forklifts dart here and there, welders send sparks flying, and industrial fans are moved from one place to another by ceiling-mounted lifts.
“What you’re going to see is all sorts of things going on, welding, machining, all sorts of things,” said AirPro’s Lori Miller on a recent tour.
One worker was slathering thick grease on a fan, applying the finishing touches.
“Just greasing the coupling, then put the coupling housing on it. This ought to be good to go,” he said. “Everything’s all torqued to spec, and then it will hit the trim rack and they run it.”
This fan is roughly the size of a small boulder and is headed to a Wisconsin-based customer.
That’s rare, actually. Most fan products are shipped all over the country and even internationally, each serving a specific purpose.
“We move air,” Miller said of the products made at AirPro. “It can be for all sorts of reasons.”
Food producers, dog food makers, car manufacturers all need to move air for one reason or another.
“It could be anywhere where they need to push air. You’d be surprised at how many places need to move something along with some kind of air of some sort, whether it’s along a conveyor, it’s along a tube, a system, a whatever,” she said.
Finished fans range from the size of a microwave to the size of a car.
At AirPro, they wait inside the building and even underneath an outdoor overhang.
“That’s rare. Very rare,” Miller said of the outdoor storage. “We don’t have room to store them [inside].”
AirPro is running out of manufacturing, testing, and storage space, both at this facility just north of Rhinelander and the one close to downtown.
“The sales have increased dramatically, so obviously with the sales comes more production. Right now, we have more production and work than we do have people and space,” said Deanna Olds, the company’s HR benefits administrator.
For that reason, AirPro just announced a major expansion, planning to increase its square footage by 40 percent by adding to both its locations.
But AirPro is not alone in the region.
Iron Mountain-based BOSS Snowplow recently finished an expansion of its own, adding 44,000 square feet.
Elsewhere in the Northwoods, Weather Shield in Park Falls announced a new product line of luxury windows and patio doors. The accompanying $3.6 million expansion will create an estimated 40 jobs.
Adding new jobs is generally treated as good news, but it’s also where things tend to get tricky.
Creating jobs is one thing. Filling them is another.
“It is slow going compared to how hiring was a year ago,” Olds said. “I could have a job posted for several weeks before I even get one candidate.”
Northwoods manufacturers repeat the same refrain.
Good jobs are available in abundance. Finding enough willing workers is a struggle.
For Olds, the last year has been especially tough.
“I’m comparing going before COVID happened. Now, after the fact, individuals are comfortable where they’re at. They’re probably concerned going somewhere new, not knowing how stable that company is,” she said. “I also think the unemployment has hurt us also.”
That is, she said, expanded government unemployment benefits have made it less attractive to seek full-time work.
Olds is confident she has a pretty good pitch to potential employees.
AirPro doesn’t do shift work at odd hours, and employees actually own the company, sharing in its profits.
Nonetheless, like so many other companies, she needs people to fill positions as the plants expand. The sooner, the better.
Would Olds hire 15 people tomorrow?
“Yes. If I could, I would,” she said. “Absolutely.”