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How One Manufacturer Is Reinvigorating a Small Nebraska Town

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Deshler, Nebraska, has a population of 747. It has one grocery store and one gas station, and its local high school graduates approximately 18 seniors each spring. It’s also the global headquarters of international irrigation firm Reinke Manufacturing, which employs a large number (about 600) of the town’s residents.

A great job: Working at Reinke has many perks, including generous pay and benefits, but until recently, the company had a hiring challenge to overcome in one specific area: housing.

  • “We are so rural that we were having difficulty getting people,” Reinke Manufacturing President Chris Roth said. “We could recruit them easily, but then it was like, ‘Well, where am I going to live?’”

A solution—with an added perk: Around 2012, Roth and other leaders at Reinke came up with a fix: The company would purchase a house for a new employee and rent it to him at a reasonable fee.

  • After that, the firm was on a roll. “We started to buy up lots with homes that needed to be torn down, homes that have been vacant for years … and put up something else” in which employees could live, Roth said. The move has “improved the town, too,” he added.
  • The first build was a fourplex with efficiency apartments. “There’s a bedroom in the back, a bathroom and a kitchenette. People like those; they’re really nice.”

Expanding a vision: The efficiencies are mostly for single people, however, and Reinke wanted to have options for prospective employees with families, too. So, it began thinking bigger.

  • “Our second fourplex was a building with two duplexes,” Roth said. “These are two-bedroom units, and small families live there.”
  • Soon the company began purchasing single-family homes, too. It currently rents out seven such houses—all available for sale to the employees.

Even bigger: In early 2021, Reinke made its biggest investment in affordable employee housing yet. It purchased an entire motel in nearby Hebron, Nebraska, and turned it into apartments.

  • The building now houses 40 people, some of them families. “It was run down when we bought it, but all brick and had a newish roof, so we were able to save a lot of it,” Roth said.
  • In addition, the company recently broke ground in Deshler on a two-story, eight-unit housing complex of two-bedroom apartments that will be ready in spring 2023.

Game changer: Since Reinke got in on the housing game, recruitment and retention of top employees “is easier now,” Roth said. “They’re willing to move because they know we’ll have housing. If you’re going to move several states, you want to know where you are going to live … There really isn’t anything on Apartments.com [in Deshler].”

  • Another benefit for Reinke employees has been that their new landlord requires less up-front outlay. “A deposit and first and last months’ rent is a lot, and it can be a problem for a lot of folks,” Roth said. “We don’t necessarily need all that.”
  • The program is so popular, Roth said, there’s currently a waiting list for the units.

Other efforts: In addition to employee housing, Reinke is increasing its presence and education efforts at the local schools in a bid to recruit talent sooner.

  • The company started an employee-taught welding program at Deshler High School, which allowed the company to develop its own curriculum using American Welding Society Standards.
  • “It gives us the opportunity to get in front of kids and teach them skills that we need,” Roth said. Reinke offers a similar program to adults through a cooperative effort at a community college.
  • A Reinke-run middle school program helps students learn to use CNC machinery, with which the company manufactures parts. Through another program at the middle school, the company teaches a class on AutoCAD, software that allows users to create detailed two- and three-dimensional drawings, as well as courses on basic electrical and hydraulics skills.

 The last word: Worker housing and manufacturing classes for young people will do more than create a top-notch workforce for the company, Roth said.

  • “A lot of times kids will graduate and go to Omaha or Lincoln, and they don’t come back,” he said. “This is a way, hopefully, to keep people here in Deshler. They make very good money, have great benefits, so we hope they stay … and keep the town going.”
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