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Erick Ajax spent years designing a program that trains students to use the hulking machinery inside his Fridley metal stamping plant. But a troubling, pervasive trend is preventing some from ever making it to the factory floor: drug use.

"In 2007, I lost 10 percent of my workforce to methamphetamine. That was just heartbreaking. It's clearly an issue and an ongoing challenge," said Ajax, who now drug tests all new hires and randomly tests his 60-person staff.

At first, the $50 drug tests he used revealed a trickle of new hires high on alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. "But in the last five or so years, we noticed methamphetamines, painkillers and heroin coming into the picture. Heroin, especially," said Ajax, co-owner of E.J. Ajax Metal Forming. "It's terrible."

Today, up to 20 percent of candidates flunk his drug test.

Ajax is one of hundreds of Minnesota employers struggling to find workers who are not only qualified, but also drug-free. Business owners say the inability of some job candidates to pass a simple drug test adds an extra burden to running a factory. "It's not any fun to go through," Ajax said.

The hiring woes come at a time when the manufacturing and construction sectors have each rebounded, adding about 8,415 jobs each in the past 12 months. The new Vikings stadium, Wells Fargo twin towers, a flurry of downtown apartments and suburban factories under construction have ramped up employment demands across the region. Employers are constantly searching for new workers. The state's unemployment rate is 4.5 percent, well below the nation's 6.2 percent.

The combined problems of low unemployment and drug use hit small- and midsize businesses the hardest, said Minnesota Safety Council President Paul Aasen. "The topic [of impaired workers] is popping up more frequently," he said. "Board members, and management and safety professionals have brought this up a lot in conversations in the last six weeks. I have been struck by that."

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that the number of workers using illegal drugs rose by 145,000 to 14.6 million people in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. The government also found that drug abuse costs U.S. businesses $120 billion each year in lost productivity, worker absenteeism, excessive turnover, injured workers and addiction treatment fees. That's up from $81 billion in 1990, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Drug use by industry sector isn't consistently tracked by state or federal governments. But manufacturers, especially smaller ones, say they've seen a rise in the number of candidates and even employees who fail drug tests.

Passing the test

Last year, the 100-worker Lyman Lumber business in Chanhassen spent $20,000 on drug tests and physicals for new hires. "It is surprising, but a lot don't pass the drug test. It's pretty common," said branch manager John Zirbes. Lyman Lumber rescinded 25 job offers last year because applicants failed drug tests. Some applicants actually walked out during the job interview after learning they would be tested, Zirbes said. "We find it very tough to find qualified people."

Joe Trauger, the human resource policy manager for the 12,000-member National Association of Manufacturers, said he isn't surprised. "I often hear from our members who say, 'I just need someone who can show up on time and pass a drug test.' But they are feeling that is increasingly a problem."

The frustration has hit a fever pitch with Ajax. Each year, he offers well paid internships, scholarships and specialized training to students, only for some to waste it on addiction.

"We would spend all this time and treasure putting people through the [manufacturing] M-Powered program and then it would come time to hire them and they would test positive. So we had to end the job offers," Ajax said. "That's just heartbreaking. It's a deal breaker. And it's frustrating."

William Moyer, spokesman for the Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota, said he understands the frustration. "There is a huge cost to recruitment and training of new employees … and oftentimes in hiring and interviewing that drug test is the last thing," he said. If the trainee fails the drug test, "then you have to start all over again. It's a big cost."

Kimberly Arrigoni, co-owner of Haberman Machine Inc. in Oakdale, said, "It costs the employers a lot of extra time and money when they [new hires] don't pass the drug test."

She put off drug testing at the 55-employee factory for years due to the cost of establishing a zero-tolerance drug policy, which involved hiring lawyers, writing manuals and taking up staff time for training.

Even companies that have a zero-tolerance policy encounter workers and potential workers who try to game it.

"We had one person come in to apply for a job and he actually asked the receptionist if we do a drug test, 'Because I think I could pass one today,' he said," said Sarah Richards, employer and co-owner of the 120-employee Jones Metal Products in Mankato. "I laughed and shook my head and thought, this is just so sad."

For her, drugs are at the extreme end of the problems employers encounter in the hunt for new workers. "It's very difficult to find people with life skills, meaning they know to come to work on time, be courteous, not threaten someone and not swear up and down," she said.

And workers who have had drug problems themselves also say they've seen strange things on the job.

Dangerous workers

Recovering cocaine addict Gregory Kemp worked for six years in a Twin Cities plastics plant that didn't screen new hires for drugs. Kemp said he frequently saw co-workers smoke joints during breaks, sleep off hangovers in the men's room, or twitch like crazy from the effects of crystal meth. Some were fired on the floor. Others got away with it.

"They'd constantly leave their line to go somewhere like the bathroom so they can sit down and hold their head. When you are on the line, you can't just go sit down. You have work. But they leave. So now, I have to pick their parts up, box their parts. It was just a big hassle," Kemp said. "When they come back on the line, I ask them for nothing [because] they are sort of dangerous … My thinking is, 'I am going to have to watch you so you don't do something stupid and get us all killed.' "

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725