How to develop and keep top employees at Top Plants

VAVRA: Each of you is in a relatively remote location. Jamie, you’ve got a university there and a state capitol, but it’s the middle of Nebraska. We’re talking the middle of South Carolina, the middle of Kentucky. One of the biggest challenges as your workforce ages and continues toward retirement is how do you get that next generation.


The three winners of Plant Engineering’s 2006 Top Plant awards sat down for a panel discussion at the Manufacturing Summit on what makes a Top Plant click. Among the topics for panelists Jamie McDonald from Square D, Duncan Seaman from BMW and Roger Wallin from Toyota was finding, training and retaining skilled workers. The discussion, moderated by editor Bob Vavra focused on reaching out to the community to find the next generation of workers:

VAVRA: Each of you is in a relatively remote location. Jamie, you’ve got a university there and a state capitol, but it’s the middle of Nebraska. We’re talking the middle of South Carolina, the middle of Kentucky. One of the biggest challenges as your workforce ages and continues toward retirement is how do you get that next generation.

What are the processes that you’re all undertaking now, and how far back has that gone, to both recognize the problem and to start to work on a solution? Duncan?

SEAMAN: Well, I guess we’re a relatively young facility compared with Square D. We’re just coming up on 14 years old, so we don’t quite see some of the same types of issues that they’re having.

But workforce development is extremely important and the hiring and selection process. I think also, the retention of those people is extremely important. Our attrition rate is very low. It’s just a couple of percent.

I think one thing that we really focus on, we have an associate evaluation program for management, just like I’m sure all of you do. But it’s not just focusing on how they do the job, but it’s how are they prepared to take the next step, and how do they fit into the organization, what are the types of jobs that they need to better prepare them to take that next step.

The evaluation process within BMW is something that’s been developed over many years, and it’s a little bit painful at times. But there’s a lot of benefit that comes out of it, really, in providing that personal development for the associate in being able to step up into those roles as those positions become open.

VAVRA: Jamie, I know you’re now actually starting to see third generation workers coming through the Lincoln facility. That’s a great legacy to have. But you’re still looking to develop that next generation?

McDONALD: Our employees are our best recruiters, without a doubt, and we are hitting the third generation. We started out in 1970-’71. In three years, we’ve got 60% of the workforce that can retire %%MDASSML%% not to say that they will, but they can. A lot of them will, and we’ve got a significant gap with our skilled trades, so recognizing that %%MDASSML%% and the level of skill that we’re looking for has been upgraded.

VAVRA: And it’s a different market out there today than it was 30 years ago.

McDONALD: It absolutely is. So what we have looked at is what our job descriptions are, maybe a consolidation of electricians and mechanics. We kicked around putting technicians in place in salaried positions.

So we’re looking at apprenticeships, frankly. We haven’t had those since the '80s, when they were big in the facility. We had training programs. Really, the '90s and 2000s %%MDASSML%% we haven’t had the need.

We’re starting to try to figure out what this apprenticeship program means, so we can go to some of the tech schools, pick the kids out of college and train them. Then, we believe they’re going to be Square D employees for life.

VAVRA: Roger, is it the same situation for you?

WALLIN: It’s something that’s looming in the very near future for us because our plant has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. With our retirement process, our folks are eligible for retirement at 25 years.

So as most of you know, you normally bring into your facilities skilled team members, of course, very, very early on in your plant construction. So we have a lot of folks within our organization that will be eligible for retirement within the next four to five years. It’s something that we have been looking at for quite some time.

Of course, we continually try to train and improve our workforce. We want to try to give people internally an opportunity to get into skilled trades, so we have a program called the Skilled Trades Development Program. There’s some extensive testing that takes place, but this basically gives an opportunity for production team members that are out on the line that may have some experience in maintenance from prior jobs or prior work history an opportunity to take that test.

It started out as a three-year, but now it’s a two-year program. But those folks are able to come into a focused training program where they have classroom study and they also have departmental assignments, so they’re studying from a training standpoint, the educational standpoint, but they also do a rotation across the different shops.

Of course, you also have to look at new hires, bringing people in off the street. I think that’s something that’s very important, too, because as an organization gets older and time passes, you want to be able to bring in %%MDASSML%% we use the term 'new blood,’ a new way of looking at things, different backgrounds, different experiences.

As a company gets older, for Toyota, talking about turnover, ours are very, very low. So our folks come, and they stay. So it’s good to be able to bring new folks in and not get complacent in the way that we look at things.

VAVRA: Increasingly, it’s not just putting out a shingle and saying “Help Wanted.” It’s recruitment, it’s training and it’s increasingly a tremendous amount of outreach into the communities.

WALLIN: Absolutely.

SEAMAN: I think to be competitive it’s going to take more and more of that. That also brings in a higher reliance on our external electrical providers, our local power companies, getting into factory power quality, which is a very critical issue for us.

You really need more reliability and quality, and I think this whole thing really gets back to the point that training has to be continuous to keep up the pace with automation in today’s workplace.

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