By Bridget McCrea
Good employees are getting harder to come by these days, thanks to a recovering economy and manufacturing firms’ seemingly insatiable need for skilled laborers. “The labor market in the Northeast is even tighter than it is elsewhere in the U.S.,” points out Paul Heidt, engineering manager at Garden State Precast in Farmingdale, N.J. “There’s less competition for jobs and not quite as many candidates out there.”
The fact that the economy is in recovery mode is a double-edged sword for precasters. The onslaught of new projects is more than welcome, of course, but staffing up has gotten somewhat more difficult in 2014. No longer compelled to hang onto their jobs for fear of not being able to replace their incomes, employees have more options and are readily exploring them.
That exploration puts pressure on firms like Garden State Precast, which is “struggling to retain employees at a reasonable pay rate,” says Heidt, “because there just aren’t as many people available to fill the jobs.” Much like the law of supply and demand pushes prices up when products are scarce, fewer candidates in the pool translate into higher wages.
Also challenging precasters right now is the fact that no matter how much training and nurturing a company offers, employees could jump ship if presented with a better offer. “You spend a lot of time training and then he or she promptly goes out and gets another job,” says Heidt, whose company focuses on creating a corporate culture around employee retention. “You have to make it so that they want to come back, instead of going somewhere else.”
In some cases, that means pairing up longtime, veteran employees with new recruits in a mentoring-type relationship. The new workers get trained not only on their specific jobs and safety measures, but they also get “tuned into” the organization by working directly with a five- or 10-year employee. Garden State also uses cross training (training new employees to be able to handle various jobs versus just one) and provides solid career paths and promotion opportunities to existing employees.
Taking nontraditional routes
To find employees, Garden State Precast has also started using nontraditional recruiting methods. “We’re doing more than just our traditional newspaper ads,” says Heidt. “We’re also recruiting through some of our local churches, labor organizations and other groups.” And where some companies may benefit from using sites like Monster or LinkedIn – or other national search methods – to find workers, Heidt says most of the company’s workforce hails from the area within 10-12 miles of its facility.
“They don’t want to change their locations or move to a new town for a new job, so we typically recruit locally,” Heidt explains, “particularly when it comes to our plant labor.” A union facility, Garden State Precast also incentivizes its existing workforce for recruiting new workers. Once those new employees have completed the probationary period and entered the union, for example, the precaster rewards the referral source for bringing in the new employee.
Heidt says recruiting good employees in today’s job market requires a deliberate, honed approach. Put together a plan for recruiting based on your industry, where your plant is located and what your HR needs are. “You can’t just shoot from the hip anymore, particularly when it comes to skilled positions like drivers, welders and anyone who has to hold a certification,” says Heidt. “They aren’t going to come walking in your door anymore; you have to get out there and find them.”
Birds of a feather
As the U.S. economy continues to emerge from a period where many employees were afraid of losing their jobs – or, that another would be difficult to find – manufacturers across most sectors are struggling with a shrinking pool of skilled labor. And as Heidt pointed out, the employees swimming in that pool are demanding higher wages, better benefits and a corporate culture that goes beyond just punching a clock every day.
These and other factors have made recruiting, hiring and retaining somewhat challenging for precasters. “You can’t have a great business without great people,” says Barry Maher, a Corona, California-based business management consultant and author of “Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business.” “The idea that employees would stay put simply because they had jobs is going away; the labor market is better, and people are starting to look around for better and/or different options.”
Maher says precasters must think beyond money when hiring. “Employees want more; they want a worthwhile place to work in every day,” says Maher, who points to management attitudes, corporate culture and advancement opportunities as three good ways for manufacturers to attract and retain new workers. “These things can make up for you not being able to offer as high of a salary as you’d like to.”
To find those workers, Maher says the best approach is to motivate your current employees to do it for you. A bonus of some kind or a cash award for every prospect recommended who is then hired and lasts a significant amount of time, say a year or six months, can work wonders. “Your current employees know what it takes to do the job,” says Maher. “They have a vested interest in bringing in people who will make the workload lighter, not heavier. And since, as the cliché goes, birds of a feather stick together, they are very likely to know others who are just like them.”
Stars and stripes recruiting
Good employees who will see projects through to the finish without complaining or slacking off aren’t always easy to find. With the job market loosening up and more companies getting back into the hiring game, now is a good time to start thinking about hiring one or more of the many military veterans currently looking for jobs.
The reasons for hiring veterans are compelling, according to Chris Marvin, managing director for Philadelphia-based Got Your 6, a campaign led by the entertainment industry to create a new conversation in America where veterans and military families are perceived as leaders and civic assets. “The best reason to hire veterans is because it’s likely that your competition has already hired some,” Marvin says. “If you don’t put some of these leaders and assets into your workforce, you’ll lose competitive advantage.”
Marvin says the fact that veterans have been trained by the federal government to be leaders, team builders and problem solvers makes them particularly good job candidates for myriad positions. “Employers must recognize that veterans bring intangible skills that are invaluable, and that veterans are quick to learn new work skills,” says Marvin. “The best approach is to hire for the intangibles and then teach the tangibles.”
NPCA is also doing what it can to help put veterans back to work. It recently partnered with the U.S. Army Reserve to promote the Hero 2 Hired (H2H) program. For employers, H2H provides free, direct access to qualified candidates who already have background checks and security clearances, also helping reduce recruiting and hiring costs. You can send customized online marketing materials and invitations-to-apply to the candidates of your choice and “position your organization for future success by connecting your job opportunities with some of our nation’s best-trained talent,” according to H2H’s website.
A retired Army Reserve colonel, John Lendrum, president at Norwalk Concrete Industries in Norwalk, Ohio, spearheaded the NPCA-H2H agreement and has used the service on numerous occasions to find job candidates. He says veterans are particularly attractive recruits, because they are more resilient than the average person, have at least basic leadership skills (if not advanced), know the value of safety in and out of the workplace, and tend to be good problem solvers. “They also have a strong work ethic that’s unlike what the average employee walking in off the street has,” says Lendrum.
Lendrum says programs like H2H can help precasters better manage in this time of tight labor and rising wages. “We’ve lost some good people this year, because they moved to places where they can get the highest dollar,” says Lendrum, who points to road construction and home building as two of several industries that are pulling skilled labor away from the manufacturing sector. “That’s definitely presenting some challenges for us right now.”
Other ways Norwalk Concrete is offsetting those challenges include visiting and working with area vocational schools and connecting with high school seniors who have specialized in construction, welding or even auto body work. The company also tunes up its compensation plan annually, offers a full suite of benefits, and offers the most competitive wage levels possible. Finally, Lendrum says his company plays up the fact that plant work doesn’t require travel or on-the-road living expenses. “In most cases, our employees have a predictable work day in exchange for a good wage and benefits,” says Lendrum. “For some people, that’s a very attractive proposition.”
To precasters who are struggling with employment challenges right now, Heidt says sticking to good hiring practices – even when business is brisk and workers are hard to come by – is extremely important. Don’t overlook the need for pre-employment screenings, interviews, drug tests and other practices your company relies on. “You really need to stay the course,” says Heidt, “because in the end, you’d rather have four to six good employees than eight to 10 mediocre ones you can’t rely on.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
Sidebar 1 – 10 Reasons to Hire Veterans
10 Reasons to Hire Veterans
For its “Employing America’s Veterans: Perspectives from Businesses” study, the Center for a New American Security conducted 87 interviews representing 69 companies and uncovered the following 10 reasons why firms hire veterans:
- Leadership and teamwork skills. Veterans typically have led colleagues, accepted direction from others and operated as part of a small team.
- Character. Veterans are perceived as being trustworthy, dependable, drug-free and having a strong work ethic.
- Structure and discipline. Companies, especially those that emphasize safety, appreciate veterans’ experience following established procedures.
- Expertise. Companies value veterans’ occupational skills, job-specific experiences and understanding of the military community.
- Dynamic environment. Veterans are accustomed to performing and making decisions in dynamic and rapidly changing circumstances.
- Effectiveness. Interviewees report that veterans “get it done.”
- Proven success. Some organizations hire veterans largely because previously hired veterans have already been successful. Veterans demonstrate that they share company values and fit the organizational culture.
- Resiliency. Veterans are accustomed to working in difficult environments, and to traveling and relocating.
- Loyalty. Veterans are committed to the organizations they work for, which can translate into longer tenure.
- Public relations value. Some companies have found marketing benefits to hiring veterans.
Sidebar 2 – Don’t Overlook the Millennials!
Also referred to as “Gen Y,” the millennial generation comprises Americans who were born after 1980 – with the youngest of them now 19 years old. According to Pew Research Center, they are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less likely to have served in the military but are on track to become the most educated generation in American history. And while it’s no secret that their entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession, millennials are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as about the overall state of the nation.
Of particular importance to employers is the fact that millennials are history’s first “always connected” generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multitasking handheld gadgets almost like a body part – for better and worse. According to Pew, more than eight in 10 millennials say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to “disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles.”
Millennials are on course to become the most educated generation in American history. It is a trend driven largely by the demands of a modern knowledge-based economy, most likely accelerated in recent years by the millions of 20-somethings enrolling in graduate school, college or community college in part because they can’t find jobs, Pew reports. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, a record share – 39.6 percent – was enrolled in college as of 2008, according to census data.
When looking for millennials to round out your company’s workforce, Marian Thier, founder and partner at Listening Impact in Boulder, says “old school activities with a technology twist” tend to be most effective. “Go where they are and communicate how they communicate,” says Thier, who sees schools, peers, interest groups, networking meetings and college internships as some of the best ways for companies to connect with potential millennial employees. Tapping into social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can also help companies make those all-important initial introductions with younger recruits.