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Fairfield CEO promotes manufacturing jobs in Eastern Iowa

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Lori Schaefer-Weaton is president of Agri-Industrial Plastics in Fairfield. (Photo courtesy Agri-Industrial Plastics)
Lori Schaefer-Weaton is president of Agri-Industrial Plastics in Fairfield. (Photo courtesy Agri-Industrial Plastics)
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Lori Schaefer-Weaton sits in her office and reflects on the road that brought her to this spot.

“I never thought I’d be here,” she said. “This wasn’t part of my plan.”

But there’s no place she’d rather be.

Schaefer-Weaton is president of Agri-Industrial Plastics in Fairfield, the company her father, Richard “Dick” Smith, started in 1978 with one used machine and four employees. Today, around 200 employees work out of a 340,000-square-foot plant with 27 state-of-the-art machines that make it a leader in the industrial “blow molding” industry for turf equipment, power sports, agricultural and marine equipment.

According to the company’s website, Agri-Industrial Plastics has a diverse customer base and is a leader in part and mold design, engineering, part production and assembly.

BREAKING STEREOTYPES

Schaefer-Weaton isn’t what you’d expect in the president of an advanced manufacturing company that makes plastic moldings for agriculture and industry — but she says she should be.

With a finance degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana, she’s worked in sales and as a strategic planner at a firm in Chicago.

“Being back here was never part of the master plan,” Schaefer-Weaton said. “This is an engineering-based business; I’m not an engineer. One of my strengths is strategically putting people in the right places.”

She’s used that strength to her advantage. She knows the value she brings to the company and has placed people in the right positions to help it — and them — grow.

Schaefer-Weaton knew what she was getting into. She grew up as Agri-Industrial Plastics did and watched her father grow the company.

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After starting her career in Chicago and pausing to raise a family, a well-timed proposal to her father launched her on a crusade to break the stereotypes of what manufacturing jobs look like.

“There are a lot of people with outdated ideas about manufacturing,” she said. “Most people think manufacturing and think of Sally Field in ‘Norma Rae.’ That’s not even close to what it is.”

Schaefer-Weaton has worked with groups and schools across the state to challenge the stereotype of manufacturing jobs and employees.

At the same time her company is creating industrial molds, she’s breaking societal ones.

“There was a survey among young women a few years ago,” Schaefer-Weaton said. “There were more women who would have chosen a career in a funeral home than in an advanced manufacturing company. We need to change that.”

Schaefer-Weaton works with the Manufacturing Institute’s “Dream It. Do It.” program, launched in 2005 to change the public perception of manufacturing and to inspire students to consider manufacturing as a career path.

“We want to grow here, we want to recruit here, and, to do that, we need to inspire people to want to work here,” she said. “There are so many kids we’re putting on the wrong path to begin with. Why don’t we show them there are other paths they can follow?

“Manufacturing far exceeds the contributions to Iowa’s GDP,” Schaefer-Weaton said. “There are a lot more opportunities, and we need to start talking about it.”

And, in many cases, she said, those opportunities pay better. A welder with two years’ experience can make more than $60,000 — with a fraction of the debt created by college student loans.

REWARDING SKILLS

Many manufacturing jobs today have employees working with robotic technology — not being replaced by it. Unfortunately, Schaefer-Weaton said, in many cases machines go unused or underused because there aren’t enough employees to operate them.

That, she said, is where today’s students have an advantage.

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“These kids are born with an iPad in their hands. They know technology better than generations before them,” she said. “Using technology and automation isn’t about eliminating jobs — it’s about putting people in the highest positions possible.

“I think we need to start rewarding kids for having these skills and not making them feel like they’re settling for a second-rate job,” she said.

Part of that, she said, is working with high schools and community colleges to change the conversation. That doesn’t necessarily mean pushing kids toward manufacturing, but to promote it as an option — either for now, or as something to come back to.

“I’m a boomerang kid — I grew up here and left,” she said. “I’m a supporter of ‘go to Minneapolis, go to Chicago, go to Kansas City, see what’s out there.’

There’s a good chance, though, they’re going to come back. And we have to make it appealing for them to do so.”

That means in addition to working with schools, Eastern Iowa employers need to be community partners — serving on committees, joining boards,

helping communities grow and prosper. “We all talk about hiring, recruiting, training and retaining,” she said. “There’s got to be more than the job to inspire someone to move their family to the area. The community has to have something to offer, too.”

And Fairfield, she said, absolutely does.

“We have a good civic center, good parks, a good recreational facility, good restaurants,” she said. “It’s a good community for a family.

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“Fairfield is small, but it’s got a lot going on,” she said. “Agri-Industrial Plastics is part of that.”

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