It's hard enough for employers to find workers to fill open jobs these days, but on top of it, many prospective hires are failing drug tests.
The Belden electric wire factory in Richmond, Ind., is taking a novel approach to both problems: It now offers drug treatment, paid for by the company, to job applicants who fail the drug screen. Those who complete treatment are also promised a job.
The pilot program, launched in February, is believed to be the first of its kind, and is an acknowledgement of both the severity of the drug problem, and the difficulty of finding qualified workers.
"If we did the same things as we did in the past, we weren't going to be successful in hiring the folks we needed," says Doug Brenneke, Belden's vice president of research and development, who helped start the program.
Belden has made electrical cables at its Indiana factory near the Ohio border for nearly a century. Its early customers included Thomas Edison, and now its 14-acre factory extrudes, weaves and coats wires that are used to hook up TVs and Internet routers around the world.
As the the second-largest employer in Wayne County, Belden is at the center of a company town. Its fate is intertwined with that of the community around it, in part because so many local families have a shared history with the company.
Louis Hubble is a 35-year company veteran. Between aunts, uncles, parents, and siblings, he says, his family has over 300 years of service at Belden — a phenomenon not uncommon in this area.
"When I first was hired in here, you had to be careful if you said anything about someone, because you'd be talking about their brother or their sister or their cousin or their aunt or uncle," Hubble says.
Years ago, his sister also worked at Belden, before switching careers. She died of an opioid addiction at age 44 in 2012, leaving her three children behind.
"And I'm not gonna lie, I miss my sister to this day," Hubble says, pausing to contain his emotion. "I always look back and say, 'What more could we have done?' "
As families grapple with the growing drug epidemic, so, too, does Belden.
Two years ago, the company needed to fill 75 positions — a very tall order in this rural area. At the same time, the percentage of applicants failing drug tests nearly tripled.
It takes 450 people to run this operation around the clock. Brenneke says a lack of workers means paying more in overtime pay. And a growing backlog means missed sales targets.
This is a common refrain among employers in Indiana and just about everywhere else. Area employers have long struggled with failed drug tests, and are trying to find workarounds. Some are turning to machines to automate work; others are giving addicted employees second chances. Every employer speaks of needing to address this problem affecting all businesses.
So it has been for Belden.
"We think part of the solution is offering basically a path out," Brenneke says.
The key distinction that makes Belden's program unique is that it isn't just paying for its own employees' drug treatment; it's doing so for those who are not yet part of the company's workforce.
"It's not a silver bullet, but it is part of an overall solution, we believe, to the epidemic," Brenneke says.
So far, 17 people have signed on. Therapy lasts between one and four months, depending on how severe their problem is. Three already work on the shop floor, and Brenneke says he hopes those rosters will continue to grow. Recruitment needs, he says, are not subsiding; a third of Belden's workforce is within 5 years of retirement age.
Having this program also enables Belden to keep existing workers like Shawn Adelsperger, a 48-year-old Richmond native.
In June, he got into a minor forklift accident, which prompted a mandatory drug test. He failed. Thin, shy and softspoken, Adelsperger says his divorce and his daughter's heroin addiction fed his own growing dependence on alcohol and marijuana.
"One of the biggest things in the program so far is being able to put everything out on the table and talk about it," he says.
According to addiction experts, patients referred to treatment through work often respond better.
Employers can often learn of an addiction at an earlier stage, making it easier to treat, says Mitch Rosenthal is a New York addiction specialist who helped design Belden's program.
"The fact that people can see themselves succeeding in work as they also succeed in therapy and self-understanding is powerful," Rosenthal says.
One nice aspect of Belden's program, he adds, is that workers going through the program can support one another on the job. "Their sobriety and the fact that they have changed, and are changing their lives, is an encouragement to the people who will come in after them," he says.
Both Rosenthal and Belden hope the success of this program will inspire other employers to replicate it.
But there are challenges.
One of them is gauging cost, says Leah Tate, Belden's vice president of human resources. Initially, the company estimated medical treatment would average $5,000 per participant. But then it found some patients needed transportation to treatment, because their driver's licenses were suspended. And participants aren't as productive at first, because they can't operate the machines until they've been drug-free for a couple months, she says.
"There's a lot more cost, a lot more hand-holding," and a lot more administrative cost, Tate says. Despite that, she says Belden remains committed, even to paying for more expensive hospitalization when necessary. In many ways, she says, the company has no choice.
"We've been in his community since 1928 — we have families of families that've worked in this plant and for this company — so the Richmond community is extremely important to Belden," Tate says.
This is exactly what matters to employees like Louis Hubble. He believes a program like this might have helped his sister.
"When she lost her job and then she ended up being on the streets, she had no hope," he says.
If the program helps one or two families avoid the same outcome, he says, it will be worth it.