How to keep your plant floor workers happy, loyal and productive
By Bridget McCrea
Let’s face it: Working on the production floor at a precast concrete production plant is hard work. There’s no denying it, and there’s no hiding that fact from prospective employees who, upon touring the plant for the first time, can see firsthand exactly what they’re getting into. Some will stay and others may shy away completely, leaving the precaster scrambling to fill the ranks at a busy production facility.
“A lot of kids today don’t understand what hard work is,” says John Lendrum, president at Norwalk, Ohio-based Norwalk Concrete Industries, a precaster that has faced its share of challenges in trying to find and retain shop-floor employees. “We’ve lost that farm-type, labor-type work ethic, and as a result the hard, dirty, sweaty job positions at the plant are getting more difficult to fill.”
What many of the potential hires don’t realize, Lendrum adds, is that for the right person there exists a well-worn career path from the shop floor into supervisory roles and even management positions. “For someone who wants to take technical training and specialize, there are a lot of opportunities,” says Lendrum, who points out that while workers in the precast industry tend to make lower wages than those in the general construction industry, they’re not subjected to lapses in work (due to, say, poor weather conditions) and generally keep “regular” hours that allow them to go home to their families every night.
These and other points can go a long way in keeping plant floor workers on the job and productive. “While the initial wage per hour may look lower than a guy doing cast-in-place on the job site,” says Lendrum, “there are many benefits to having a stable job in a plant environment instead of being a road warrior.”
Precasters like Norwalk are far from being alone in the quest to fill plant-floor positions with qualified individuals who will stay on board for more than a year. With Baby Boomers retiring, fewer people interested in “laborious” jobs and companies across all industries trying to fill their ranks, precasters are hard pressed to find folks who are willing to get their hands dirty on a daily basis.
The impending labor shortage doesn’t bode well for companies already struggling to find good hires, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, principal at Human Resource Solutions in Brookline, Mass. “For manufacturers, that labor shortage is already there,” says Matuson. “There are a lot fewer people to pull from in those pools, particularly in the northeastern U.S.”
But that doesn’t mean a precaster should give up, throw in the towel or pare back production to a more manageable level. Instead, Matuson says companies need to come up with definitions of exactly who they’re looking for (minimum qualifications for an equipment operator, for example) to fill the position. Ask yourself whether this is a job that someone can easily move into without much training or if more extensive education is needed.
Then position the job in the marketplace (the newspaper, an online job board, through a trade association, etc.) in a way that would make it appealing to potential recruits. Can you offer the job on a part-time basis to a stay-at-home mom or dad looking for supplemental income? Are there different shifts that can be offered to a two-parent household where both individuals are seeking jobs?
“Think out of the box,” says Matuson, “and don’t try to follow what everyone else is doing. Be original.” Consider retirees who need income (or who are bored with retirement) as a viable option for certain jobs that may not require as much physical labor, for example.
When it comes to recruitment strategies, Matuson says traditional newspaper ads combined with Internet postings often yield good candidates, though she says word-of-mouth referrals tend to be the most effective.
“The best way to find people is through other people,” says Matuson, who advises precasters to establish an employee referral program through which employees are rewarded for referring qualified candidates. “Most people are not going to refer anyone that they wouldn’t want to work with, which means you end up with a nicely screened applicant pool.”
That’s exactly what Norwalk did, according to Lendrum, who says the firm uses a mix of advertising and incentives to bring fresh faces in the door. Once on board, the employee is partnered with an experienced staffer (through the company’s NET training program) and shown the ropes of the job via a 30-step orientation.
Lendrum says the program goes a long way toward making employees feel like they “belong,” even just three or four days into the training. “By the fourth day of employment, if they haven’t made a friend or if they don’t understand what they are doing, they’re not going to stick around.”
At Utility Vault in the working class city of Auburn, Wash., Rob Buck says his company is constantly looking for “warm bodies” to fill its production-floor positions. It hired about 80 employees last year alone by using newspaper ads (which yielded so-so results), employee referrals (a “pretty good” strategy, according to Buck) and a simple “Now Hiring” sign on the side of the plant (which turned up the highest number of candidates).
The process is simple, says Buck, safety coordinator for the firm: Potential applicants see the sign, they come into the plant, grab an application and fill it out. They’re then asked to take a drug test and are also tested on a series of seven different job functions (lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, shoveling, etc.) to see whether they can handle certain aspects of the work.
“We have had a few people fail it, and a few more say, ‘This is not what I want to be doing,’” says Buck. “We weed them out before they start.” The company has also developed a new hire information booklet that includes an employee handbook, safety information and other materials that takes the average worker about 90 minutes to sift through. A tour of the facility follows, as does an introduction to the boss (or bosses) that they’ll be working for.
To ensure that his firm’s plant-floor employees stick around, George Schurr, vice president of operations at Trenwa in Fort Thomas, Ky., says the company offers an hourly wage plus a year-end bonus plan, 401(k) plans and profit-sharing plans. “We realize that a lot of plant-level workers don’t put a lot of money into retirement plans, so we set them up with 401(k)s,” says Schurr. “They can contribute whatever they want to it, and at the end of the year we make a profit-sharing contribution. They appreciate that.”
On the hiring front, Schurr concurs with Matuson and says the best candidates often come through networking. “If we’re looking to fill a position, we’ll ask around and see if someone knows somebody who needs a job, instead of just putting an ad in the paper,” says Schurr, who also uses the newspaper but has found the Internet highly ineffective. “We tried the Internet once for production employees, but Monster.com didn’t really get us there.”
Expect more challenges ahead when it comes to hiring just about any type of employee, says Matuson, who urges precasters to look now at any “revolving doors” that may be making it difficult to hang onto good workers. The management ranks may be a good starting point for a self-assessment, she adds, since workforce studies indicate that employees leave their bosses, not their companies.
“Instead of just saying, ‘This is a high turnover job’ or ‘This is a high turnover industry,’ take a step back and look at your company and its managers and supervisors,” says Matuson, who encourages a thorough examination of benefits packages (such as health insurance, retirement plans and flex time options) as a way to cut down on the number of employees who leave in search of greener pastures. “Look at areas where you can add value for your employees, and focus on creating an environment where people want to work.”