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Up against oil: Sidney Sugars competes for workers in Bakken Oil Patch

FNS Photo by Mikkel Pates Sidney Sugars Inc. of Sidney, Mont., shown here on July 1. has had somewhat spotty rail service this winter, but not as bad as the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota, home to its American Crystal Sugar Co. parent company.

SIDNEY, Mont. — Dave Garland, general manager of the Sidney Sugars Inc. beet sugar plant of Sidney, Mont., said he’d prefer to concentrate on making sugar. Instead, he spends a lot of his time working on housing and advertising to attract new workers in the middle of an oil boom.

It is a big job to run a plant that will handle production from about 30,000 acres of beets this year. Sidney Sugars has a staff of 300 for the harvest and production campaign. That typically runs from October to mid-February. The year-round “inter-campaign” staff for maintenance and sugar shipping staff is about half of that.

When Garland started in the sugar business 18 years ago, the worker turnover year-to-year was negligible.

“You rarely saw an opening, with people wanting to advance to higher-skill positions,” he said.

Today, Sidney Sugars advertises nationally and year-round for most of its positions, a contrast to traditional efforts of looking for workers just before the campaign. To find workers, the company watches the nation’s employment picture, and looks for areas where workers with needed skills might be available. Sidney Sugars, a subsidiary of American Crystal Sugar Co. of the Red River Valley, works through local job service officials and contacts trade schools for prospects for skilled jobs. The factory has never had to stop running for lack of employees.

“Each year we advertise like crazy and hire throughout the year. It never stops,” he said. “Last year we were advertising and hiring in the last week of slice.”

In the past three years the company has hired 275 people each campaign.

“It’s almost 100 percent of what we employ,” he said. “It’s been incredibly stressful on management, and especially the supervisors who have to run a shift, a process and continually train a number of people every day. Last year, we ended up about 20 people short every day of campaign.”

Several years ago, Sidney Sugars started paying an additional incentive payment — starting at $1 above the union-negotiated hourly rate. Two years ago, it went to a $2 per hour incentive, applicable throughout the factory. Garland said the incentive helped keep employees.

Still, the company is working with American Crystal corporate officials to acquire the minimum of four licensed boiler operators it needs to run the factory — one for each shift.

“We’ve already made contacts for this next campaign for outside sources to provide employees — any way we can get people here in Sidney,” Garland said.

Sidney hires boiler operators, instrument technicians, welders, electricians and mechanics. It also maintains laboratory and warehouse staff, year-round.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re the store shelf for good employees for the other businesses,” Garland said.

The housing issue

A small apartment in Sidney rents for $2,000, plus the deposits.

“You’re looking at $6,000 just to get an apartment in town,” Garland said, “I am sure that equates to about $16 an hour just to pay rent.”

Three years ago, the company built its own campground “man camp,” that holds 50 recreational vehicles — all full during peak times.

“That’s been a great asset,” he said. “It was made basically for seasonal, but right now we have at least 20 units still full for year-round employees.”

The company offers the spot free of charge, with electricity, which is no small thing.

Sidney Sugars also recently purchased a housing unit that sleeps 42 additional workers — six trailers put together, something like a hotel hallway in the middle.

“You’ve got to keep thinking outside the box,” Garland said.

On the tracks

Sidney ships out about 80 percent of its sugar via rail and 20 percent in sacks by truck.

“We’re finding that they’re getting plugged up in different areas of the country,” Garland said of the cars. “Keeping them real steady has been an issue but it hasn’t been real bad, like the Red River Valley was. We have plenty of storage. But we anticipate rail’s going to be an issue, too.”

But there’s also reason to be positive. This year’s projected yield is about 29.2 tons per acre, above the previous high of 27.5 tons.

“In the end, we’re still producing a world-class product,” he said. “We can’t forget that.”