— An attorney from Ecuador has found a new calling as a coach, mentor and friend for her employees at Ag Jobs.
Solange Cooley started Ag Jobs in 2019, providing her clients with a diverse workforce and her employees with jobs that include transportation, as well as room and board. She also provides human resources support to her clients.
The Ag Jobs office is located in downtown Willmar at 300 Litchfield Ave. S.W., and all of her employees are also from Willmar or the surrounding areas.
One of her more recent clients is Brunswick Corporation, which manufactures Lund Boats. Cooley negotiated with Brunswick for five months before settling on a contract that worked for both sides, she said.
The original plan was to provide employees for the New York Mills manufacturing plant, but housing was a big challenge in that area. Then Lund Boats suggested moving part of its manufacturing operations to Willmar.
"Oh my goodness, most definitely, we're going to move this to Willmar," Cooley agreed. "This will be great for Willmar. Our community is going to have something different. We don't have too much manufacturing here."
Following a ribbon cutting ceremony in October for the new light manufacturing plant in Willmar,
Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission
's Business Development Manager Sarah Swedburg commented about how Ag Jobs is "really tapping into that workforce that we have here" and is "a really great example of some unique things and innovations happening."
"Sol is not just providing jobs for the Latino community, she's making sure the businesses that employ them are fostering community and helping those people integrate into American society. She's doing a really important job," added Kelsey Olson, the EDC's Marketing and Communications Specialist, noting that all Cooley's employees had the same shoes at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Ag Jobs provides them all with shoes — with good supporting shoes so they can do their work. Just little things like that."
In Ecuador, Cooley worked mostly on labor issues, such as benefits and employee rights. Managing a workforce and helping clients staff their companies was a natural transition for her skill set.
"I always wanted to go back to working in that profession; unfortunately, I couldn't," Cooley said, noting the laws in Ecuador are completely different than in the U.S. and not being fluent in English at that time was also a barrier.
After following her family to Minnesota from Ecuador, Cooley worked at Jennie-O Turkey Store as a computer operator and "put her English into practice," she said. She considers Jennie-O a great school for her to get to where she is at currently.
At Jennie-O, she got to know people from diverse backgrounds, including the diversity found within the Latino community. Although they may be similar, Hispanic cultures are also very different, she explained, noting that when speaking with someone who is Mexican, the same word means something different to them than it does to her.
Eventually, Cooley was working for another staffing service business and came to realize she had the skills and ability to start her own company doing something similar, but in a way that she felt was more beneficial to her employees and her clients.
Her company has grown from five to 100 employees since 2019, and she is now branching out more into manufacturing clients rather than just agricultural clients.
Part of Cooley's goal and mission is to show people that Latinos are not just coming to the U.S. to work in the fields or with animals. They have "wonderful skills" that are impressive, she said.
She used herself as an example, explaining that although she was an attorney in her home country, she went "back to zero" working on the line at Jennie-O where she would ask herself, "What am I doing here? What is going on?"
Now she sees that as something that was positive and helped her build herself back up again, learning more about diverse cultures and learning more skills. "I thought my background skills were garbage, because I didn't study here, but it's not. I was wrong," she said.
Cooley makes sure to ask her employees what they did in their country before coming to the U.S. They tell her what they did, but explain that they cannot get work in those career fields here because of their lack of English skills.
She currently has 10 clients for which she provides part of the workforce needed. Some of her clients include
KLN Family Brand
Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative
US 212 Beef Corporation
Hanson Silo Company
"Ag Jobs and the services they provide have really just been a great extension of our team to satisfy some of the employment demands we have experienced," said Joyce Anderson of Shoremaster in Little Falls, which manufactures waterfront equipment such as boat lifts, docks and other marine accessories. "Those employees have come in with a great attitude, work ethic, and eagerness to grow and be a part of our team."
Cooley explained that her reputation and best advertising comes from her employees, with clients often commenting, "I don't know what you do, but they love you, they love the company."
With her employees, Cooley has an open-door policy, and they look at her as a friend and coach, as well as someone who has gone through a similar experience in coming to the U.S. and finding meaningful employment. "I think in my community and our culture, that is very important," she commented.
"Sol is very professional and responsive in the two years we have worked with her," said Kristi Froemming of TFC Poultry, a company based in Ashby that debones turkey thighs. "Her care for each employee is obvious and appreciated. Happy workers are important and this is a high priority to Sol."
Part of her service is to prevent no-calls and no-shows. Her company provides transportation, as well as room and board, for her employees.
"Ag Jobs has provided a very steady workforce for over two years," Froemming said. "Ag Jobs has been very dependable and reliable with our workflow. It provides quality employees that are skilled, on time and what we need to be successful in our business."
Cooley's husband works in agriculture, and they have three children, Ava, 14, Eon, 11, and Jackson, 4.