By Alex Morales, M. Ed.
Editor’s Note: This is the last article of a series on attracting, training and retaining talent.
We began this workforce development series with data showing the scarcity of available plant-floor labor, which is expected to get worse over the next decade.
“We had a good workforce and weren’t really paying attention to the issue until the last four or five years,” said Bill Bundschuh, president of PRETECH Corp. “The available talent just seemed to taper off.”
Ritner Day of ConcreteCareers.com confirms the shortage has slammed precasters across North America.
“As recruiters to the precast industry, we are seeing the labor market become increasingly competitive for talent,” Day said.
These experiences signal a stark call to action for the precast industry. The industry cannot succeed without a labor force that produces and installs the products.
In terms of entry-level plant-floor employees, precast manufacturers need to stop thinking of other precasters as competitors in the marketplace. All manufacturing environments – such as vehicle assembly plants, recycling plants, clothing distributors and electronic component manufacturers – are competing for the same small pool of available talent. With the scarcity of labor, if an employee is lost to another precaster, that’s better for the industry than to lose them to a vehicle assembly plant, for instance. The industry as a whole will be more successful if it is united about employment issues. The labor force needs to see the precast industry as the best manufacturing place to work.
The precast manufacturing environment is distinct from plants that manufacture consumables because precast concrete products are shipped to job sites to create durable, resilient, and, in some cases, beautiful and boundary-pushing structures. Regardless of the specific products a plant manufactures, the modularity of precast concrete is often touted because of its impact on the speed of construction. Consider framing the work that takes place on the plant floor as work that is creating the next stadium, row home or opera house. Touring completed projects with plant-floor employees helps connect their day-to-day work to the built environment. Our industry can provide a sense of pride and accomplishment that is difficult to find at bottling plants, recycling plants or elsewhere. The industry can better retain employees when they are passionate about precast concrete and the impact their work has on the community at large. Leverage that benefit with your employees.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. A solid workforce development plan addresses three things: attraction, training and development, and retention. Each facet of the plan needs to be fully engaged for the overall effort to succeed. Our efforts to attract talent must coexist with our efforts to train and develop employees in the specific skills that both interest them and benefit the plant. These efforts must also coexist with a solid retention strategy, so employees are not lost to another industry. Taking employees on site tours to see what they’ve created isn’t going to solve the workforce problem completely, but it’s a great start.
Money is not a retention strategy
If you’ve lost employees in the past to a local facility that simply paid more per hour, you might think paying more than local market rates is enough to keep your employees. PRETECH Corp. was struggling with flatworkers leaving when construction peaked each year because they could get paid more per hour, but employees were told to look at their W-2s, not their paychecks.
“We strive to keep employees working throughout the year when those other options just lay them off,” Bundschuh said.
According to the Manufacturing Institute’s study, “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing,” wages are not the only answer. It states, “While paying higher wages to attract the skilled workers may help attract talent, it isn’t likely enough to single-handedly solve the talent issue.”1
In fact, the Manufacturing Institute also published a study, “U.S. Public Opinions on Manufacturing,” stating: “Job security and stability was the most common reason given as to why respondents would not encourage someone from a younger generation to pursue a career in manufacturing.”2
Over the next decade, the solution to attract and keep people is not more money – it’s job stability and security.
“It is important for management to discuss each employee’s future with them,” Day said. “They do not want to guess what is in store for them.”
In the precast concrete industry, employees have traditionally been laid off temporarily when production is impacted by weather, government spending or other factors. Many manufacturing environments do so, but is it possible to address housekeeping, safety, maintenance or other projects during those times to prevent a temporary layoff?
“Whenever we’re not pouring, we redirect work to fixing machinery, shoveling snow and ice or overall plant cleanliness,” Bundschuh said.
Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey report, “Millennial’s Confidence in Business, Loyalty to Employers Deteriorate,” shows a “clear, negative shift in millennials’ feelings about business’ motivations and ethics.”
Among the things the report cites about millennials’ beliefs is that they have a clear expectation that companies will offer them stability and security in terms of “job creation, career development and improving people’s lives.”
“Do you look at your employees as an expense or as an investment?” Day said. “One mistake that we continually see is that employers want to be competitive, but don’t go beyond what it takes to attract top talent.”
Bundschuh encourages precasters to investigate whether their state offers partial unemployment benefits.
“Fifteen states or so have this benefit,” Bundschuh said. “Unemployment is controlled by the business and we can work employees three days a week, for instance, while they collect unemployment for the other two.”
If you are in a state with such a program, participating in it can encourage employees to stay with your plant as you work with them to ensure employment stability when they might have otherwise left during long layoff periods.
“Unemployment benefits are issued by each state agency and you will need to investigate what is available in your state,” Bundschuh said.
If you’re looking for ideas to keep employees working during slower production times, consider training options discussed in the previous article. Training all your employees in Production and Quality School Level I can even qualify your plant to earn continuous improvement points on your plant certification audits, which is a win-win for everyone.
Providing alternative job tasks during slower production periods provides a stable, consistent income for your employees and sharing with them completed projects they helped to make possible shows them they are improving people’s lives.
“Top employees will not tolerate a company culture with no future,” Day said. “As it is an employee market, there are too many options for them to look elsewhere.”
PRETECH Corp. goes beyond job security during slow periods and looks at employee benefit packages. It is the company’s way of providing overall stability and security in their employees’ lives.
“We pay the majority portion of the cost of health insurance for employees and their families, too,” Bundschuh said.
Bundschuh believes this communicates to his employees the company’s commitment to their overall well-being but it also motivates consistent attendance.
“When the family at home needs health insurance, the employee is less likely to jeopardize their job,” he said.
Cultivate relationships with your employees
In the second article of this series, we discussed the importance of personalizing a training and development plan for each employee to make them feel like the workplace cares about them as individuals. Providing a stable and secure work environment strengthens the relationship you have with your employees because it helps build their confidence in you and in themselves. Studies referenced throughout this series relay a common message that younger generations are skeptical of today’s businesses’ commitment to employees. Precast manufacturers can be different.
“Young professionals are … seeking help building confidence (and) interpersonal skills,” Deloitte states in its 2018 Millennial Survey Report. “In their view, businesses are insufficiently focusing on nurturing these and similar soft skills.” 3
In order to be a standout employment option, the precast industry needs to meet those needs in order to attract and retain employees. This presents an opportunity to train employees in some of these skills during slow production periods.
“Gen Z respondents … feel they need to develop their confidence and interpersonal skills … based on experience. They anticipate looking to employers for both formal and informal support in areas such as communication, leadership, finance, economics, language … and analytical skills.” 3
PQS online is a great option for employees during slow production periods, but you should also consider training beyond production and quality. Talk to your employees about how your company can best be supportive throughout the year and invest in them even during slow production periods.
Diversity and flexibility
Millennial and Gen Z employees have placed expectations on the support they receive from employers, wanting it to align with their values. Among other factors, a lack of flexibility in their work will encourage these younger workers to pursue employment elsewhere.
According to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, “Forty-three percent of millennials envision leaving their jobs within two years … Employed Gen Z respondents express even less loyalty, with 61% saying they would leave within two years if given the choice.” 2
These numbers are far below the median employee tenure of 4.2 years. While attracting the younger generation may take a higher starting wage and a commitment to training and development, retention “is enhanced when businesses and their senior management teams are diverse, and when the workplace offers a higher degree of flexibility.”2
Diversity is not solely about racial and ethnic makeup. Economic, gender and educational diversity will also show an employee they have the potential to be a leader one day, if they stay at the company. Promoting from within will encourage employees not just to do their best but to stay with your company for the long term. If employees can relate to their supervisors and company leaders, you improve the chances they see themselves in leadership positions at your plant.
Flexibility is an area many manufacturers struggle with, especially precasters who have specific stripping times in order to turn forms and keep production active. However, balancing a personal life with work is as important to production-floor employees as it is to senior managers, so adding flexibility is encouraged. Can you add a position on the floor to compensate for flexibility? There’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done there for each manufacturer, but it should be done to ensure you investigate every possibility to provide flexibility.
Ultimately, a good retention strategy is one that you must consider thoroughly. We’ve spotlighted the efforts of various precasters throughout this series and you may decide that some of the tactics that work at other companies may not work for you. That’s OK, but consider every option and decide what improvements you can handle right now.
NPCA is united with precasters and suppliers in the effort to find and keep top talent in the precast industry and will continue to share ideas to help every member plant attract, train and retain the best manufacturing workforce possible.
Alex Morales, M. Ed., is NPCA’s director of workforce development.
2 2015 Manufacturing Perception Study, Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, 2015