Employee engagement in the United States is at an all-time low. This should be motivation enough for companies to get team members more involved in the organization’s overall success. Defined by Gallup polling as someone’s emotional commitment to an organization and its goals, employee engagement dropped to 32% last year (compared to 34% in 2021) with 18% of individuals claiming to be “actively disengaged” while at work.

This is just one of several examples for manufacturers to pay attention to.

With national unemployment rates sticking to 53-year lows of 3.4% early in 2023, for example, workers have a lot of job options at their fingertips. Even as the tech sector cools off and scales back its workforce, jobs in manufacturing, construction and distribution remain plentiful. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the construction sector had about 800,000 job openings for most of 2022, and manufacturing may wind up with 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030 – a gap that could result in a $1 trillion loss of revenues per year.

In light of these and other human resources challenges, companies are tightening their recruiting and retention strategies with the goal of keeping valued team members in place at a time when the next job is just one screen tap or mouse click away.

Companies focused on employee engagement are reaping the rewards of their efforts. By one Global Human Capital Trends survey’s estimates, high engagement levels can lead to 21% profitability boosts, thanks in some part to the fact that individuals who are engaged in their work are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity rates.

The question is: How can precast manufacturers get their teams more involved and on board with the company’s broader goals and missions while supporting individual goals, addressing issues and nurturing successes? One way to do this is by simply listening to what those team members have to say – good, bad or otherwise –then addressing that feedback in a deliberate, dedicated manner.

In some cases, the best course is to quickly act on the feedback. In others, taking it into consideration and explaining why no actions have resulted is enough to let employees know that their voices are being heard.

A Culture of Active Listening

One of the best ways to boost workplace productivity is listening to employees. This gives them a sense of ownership over their work. It also helps establish rapport and trust between team members and their managers, bonds that also contribute to a more productive, positive workplace focused on continuous improvement.

At Garden State Precast, President Kirby O’Malley said achieving these goals may require a cultural shift. It also requires regular monitoring of where the company is at, its goals and how well it is achieving those benchmarks.

“Continuous improvement has to be a part of your corporate culture, and it should always incorporate employee feedback, both good and bad,” O’Malley said.

In some cases, that feedback may need to be coaxed out of employees – particularly if it’s never been invited or encouraged before. He speaks regularly with managers and supervisors, for example, and poses questions such as: What are you working on right now to help fix a problem, make processes better or just generally improve our overall operations?]

“I also encourage them to talk to their teams and ask them similar questions, knowing that if we’re not listening and putting new (initiatives) in place, then we’re not going to improve as an organization,” O’Malley said.

Many times the answers to those questions turn into action on the company’s part. For example, Garden State makes block-outs for hole-formers and traditionally used tie-ins when constructing the products. When a group of team members came up with a different approach to the job, the precaster listened.

“They came up with a way to use magnets instead, so we totally got away from using any kind of tie-in or rebar for the block-outs,” O’Malley said. “That’s just one little shift that made a difference in an operation where we take a lot of small steps to get to a finished product. If we can save just five minutes a day by using magnets instead of tie-ins, it can really add up.”

In another example, O’Malley said that a supervisor and a member of the maintenance staff are working on a telescoping metal slide instead of risers in the company’s precast forms.

“When that’s finished, it’ll be a big deal, because we’ll be able to eliminate the need for all of the wood in our plant,” he said. “Wood is expensive and a pain in the neck to work with, so we’re looking forward to that.”

Suggestion Boxes

Sam Lines, engineering manager at Concrete Sealants, once worked for a precast company that used an employee suggestion box to encourage feedback from team members. Some people used the forum to complain about thermostat settings in the office, and others offered broad, unactionable feedback like, “I wish the floors in the plant were cleaner.”

To get their employees thinking more specifically about what could be done to correct issues and improve the company’s operations, managers began requiring actionable steps for all suggestions. So instead of “we need to make our concrete better,” the input had to include suggestions such as “we should begin measuring the amount of water in our aggregates” or “we need to use probes in our aggregate bins.”

Fast-forward to today, and Lines said Concrete Sealants takes its own employees’ feedback seriously by gathering a group of individuals together – all of whom understand the specific process or problem at hand – reviewing the suggestions and acting on them accordingly.

“We’ll have a brainstorming session to hear every idea,” Lines said. “No one is allowed to tear down or to reject any idea that’s presented. We strive for complete input.”

Using the lean manufacturing brainstorming model, the group considers several iterations of the idea, knowing that suggestion No. 1 may lead to suggestion Nos. 2, 3 and 4 before becoming an actionable step. Lines said the company also uses a “multi-voting” approach whereby 10 ideas are put up on a board and everyone votes on their top two ideas to cull through the ideas and determine which of them have the most potential.

“When you use multi-voting, you can take a step back and quickly see whether the group wholeheartedly believes that item X is probably the best way to tackle the problem,” Lines said. “This not only ensures that everyone’s voice is heard in the continuous improvement process, but it also allows the committee as a whole to create a unified buy-in on a specific solution.”

Find a Problem, Fix a Problem

To precast manufacturers who either want to start a new employee feedback program or improve upon an existing one, Alan Pritchard said focusing on the company’s challenges, pain points and headaches is a good way to get team members thinking about potential solutions and suggestions.

“Get them thinking in terms of ‘find a problem, fix a problem,’” said Pritchard, the research and development leader and quality manager at Smith-Midland Corp. “This small step helps employees really get engaged and enthused about helping to fix issues that they may be experiencing on the job.”

Establish an “open environment” where associates aren’t afraid to speak up, knowing that employee feedback at all levels is a critical component of a lean operation that’s focused on continuous improvement.

“It’s about recognizing, accepting and addressing defects; praising everyone who brings up a problem; and then addressing those issues as they arise,” Pritchard said. “And make sure management and leadership are onboard with the effort, which has to be part of your corporate culture versus expecting employees to fix things on their own without any support.”

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.