This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
This is the second of a two-part series looking at manufacturing’s skilled labor gap in Michigan. Check out the first article on the MMA Blog.
The story of the talent shortage in Michigan manufacturing is two-fold.
The first challenge, one of talent acquisition, is a narrative the industry has been grappling with for years. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this challenge with increasing competition between retailers and manufacturers for higher hourly rates and better benefits. After developing strategies to support a stable pipeline of workers, the second challenge comes in the form of retention. Once you acquire a good employee, what are the benefits, opportunities and best practices companies are using to keep their people long term?
This challenge has been further complicated with what is being called “The Great Resignation,” as millions of workers across the U.S. have decided to explore new careers in the wake of COVID-19. Nationwide, the top reason employees give for leaving their jobs is burnout. A survey of 1,000 workers conducted by Eagle Hill Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm, found that 57 percent of U.S. employees say they are burned out with their current position. Both Millennials and women report higher levels of burnout, as do employees with school-age kids who are remotely learning from home.
Conversely, the top reason for employees staying in their positions boils down to a very simple concept — feeling valued.
“We have annual picnics for the staff, we provide employees with turkeys for Thanksgiving and we host Christmas parties for the employees’ children...These are all ongoing and only some of the efforts established to let our employees know we appreciate them and their families. Additionally, we celebrate the great work the team is doing with safety and attendance lunches.”
— Suzanne Morrison, Hatch Stamping Company
This is not a new concept for Phil Sponsler, President of Orbitform, who says companies that focused on culture and employee engagement before the pandemic are now seeing the benefit of those efforts. Orbitform is a designer and manufacturer of assembly machines that OEMs and integrators use to permanently fasten and form parts.
“People want to know they are safe, appreciated and that they have a future. You put those three things together and you create what I call ‘stickiness’ between your employee and the company,” says Sponsler. “I think it’s the culture. All the way before the pandemic, how you treated your folks, what investments you made into that process, those investments paid off.”
Sponsler proudly says, despite the fact his employees are always being recruited, they didn’t have anybody leave during the pandemic which even included some hourly employees who could have been making more money staying at home with expanded unemployment benefits.
“And this comes from a level of really caring about your employees,” says Sponsler.
Suzanne Morrison, Director of Marketing at the Chelsea-based Hatch Stamping Company, stated their management team recognized during the pandemic that communicating with employees was going to be critical.
“During the pandemic, we had a website dedicated to all Hatch Stamping Company employees that included information on the COVID-19 virus, customer news and updates, the status of the team members and what the company was doing to stay safe,” says Morrison. “Since we are considered an essential manufacturer we were not shut down; however, our staffing was determined by customer needs. So, we did what we could to keep employees feeling cared for during such a challenging time and it’s amazing to me how many people indicated, ‘It really helped me still feel connected.’
The website also included a wealth of information for our team. We provided a status on our team members, the company and the virus, we also included a section on health and wellness, art, virtual activities as well as interesting information, whether it was about history of the day or perhaps information on one of our global facilities and much more. The site was updated daily, we tracked the activity and took feedback from the team ensuring we were answering their questions and including their input.”
She adds: “We want to retain our employees. We want them to be part of the solution. We want them to feel that they’re needed and necessary. We’re spending a lot more time communicating with them than we have in the past.”
“Anything employers can do to make their employees feel valued and like they are making an impact is really important.”
—Mike Dergis, Sigred Solutions
Mike Dergis, who manages recruitment for mainly industrial clients as Founder of Sigred Solutions, conducts an annual survey to better understand what employees are looking for from their employers. According to this survey, in 2020 and 2021, feeling valued and having an impact were what employees rated as top priorities for their jobs.
“When considering an employer, 70 percent of respondents said that how that employer reacted to COVID-19 policies and procedures, and what they put in place to keep employees safe, was a very important determining factor in whether or not they wanted to work for them,” says Dergis. “If you’re a company that did really well handling COVID-19 and communicating with your employees, you should market that.”
At Magna International, a global auto supplier and mobility technology company, maintaining communications with nearly 170,000 employees across the world was a key element to their keeping employees engaged during the pandemic, says Tracy Fuerst, Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR for Magna International.
“We used everything in our arsenal to help flip the perception of employees not being safe during COVID-19. We used internal communications, social media, our employee app...I think that helped put the minds of a lot of our employees at ease.”
Fuerst oversees Magna International’s communications to their 159,000 worldwide employees. She was instrumental in creating Magna’s “Smart Start Playbook” at the beginning of the pandemic to create policies around safety in the workplace and the retention of employees. She has also been highly involved in reducing the stigma of manufacturing as dirty, back-breaking work.
“Continue to re-recruit your current employees. Demonstrate to your employees your company’s importance and value to them. It is our job as the employer to continue to show people why it’s important that they stay with us.”
—Candace Kettner, The Shyft Group
“Whenever I write speeches for our leadership, I encourage them to emphasize that manufacturing is a high-tech, highly regulated industry,” says Fuerst. “We essentially produce a safety product given to a 16-year-old to drive. It’s extremely complex and something for employees to be proud of.”
Upskilling and other workforce development opportunities are also key pieces to long-term employee retention. At The Shyft Group, a company that specializes in assembly of recreation and suite vehicles, they have a more hands-on approach when it comes to training and upskilling.
“We started a new production line recently and had current employees learn it first,” says Candace Kettner, Director of Talent at The Shyft Group. “Then those employees trained the new employees. They really liked this opportunity to move into higher roles, like a team leader role or a production supervisor role. A lot of these people had never been in a leadership role before. What’s more, this solution benefited everyone, new and current employees alike.”
Creating these types of opportunities for employees to upskill and learn new things is part of their effort to continually “re-recruit” their workers, according to Kettner. These efforts help to reinforce their value and impact to the organization.
“Continue to re-recruit your current employees,” says Kettner. “Demonstrate to your employees your company’s importance and value to them. It is our job as the employer to continue to show people why it’s important that they stay with us.”
COVID-19 has changed the expectations employees have for their employers. Employees want options and, in terms of white-collar manufacturing jobs, that often means working from home when able.
“In our survey, we found that roughly 25 percent of people were not willing to commute as far as they used to,” says Dergis.
“Turnover is happening because people want to work from home. We’ve shifted to a ‘work-from-home-when-you-can’ format, and we encourage other manufacturers to do the same,” says Kettner. “If you’re unsure, start small. Let people work from home one day a week and build up from there.”
Kettner suggests a solution for keeping employees engaged that also considers remote employees.
“In 2021, we hosted a virtual ‘name-the-tune’ event for employees working from home,” said Kettner. “It was interactive and fun, and people logged in from their laptops. All employers should do things to keep people engaged and interacting with each other but offer a remote option for those who do not plan to travel to the office.”
“We have so many of our employees who are coaches and mentors with community organizations such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters or hockey programs. We encourage involvement in their community. We’ve created a culture of opportunity, and we find ways to recognize them for their contributions.”
—Paul Harvey, Engineered Machined Products
Kristi Stepp, Partner at Sigred Solutions, echoes these comments.
“Working from home isn’t going away anytime soon,” she says. “So how are you making sure people are getting direction and feel supported, with some working from home and some from the facility?”
Stepp suggested something called “reboarding,” or bringing a mixed group of employees together to give them shared experiences, introduce them to each other (in person or virtual) and facilitate the connections that would normally happen naturally when everyone is in the office together. The people she suggests inviting are a mix of people who were hired completely remotely at the beginning of the pandemic, and current employees who have been disconnected for a while. She emphasizes this as a critical step in rebuilding a company culture where people are excited about and proud of their employer and their work.
“For your most important, critical roles, make sure you’re doing what people need to keep talent because it is very competitive,” said Stepp. “People are being paid $18 to work for McDonald’s, with promises of college tuition reimbursements. How is your company going to keep up?”
Building a Healthy Workplace Culture
Employee retention is not a one-size-fits-all approach, nor is it a one-and-done attempt. Employers must consistently work to make their employees feel seen and heard, through recognition programs and by building a healthy workplace culture.
According to Stepp, the pandemic amplified every aspect of a company’s culture.
“If you have a great culture, COVID-19 amplified that. But if you don’t have a good culture, COVID-19 amplified that, too.
“One of things that I think is very important around culture is you can’t just think about managers,” she continues. “You have to think about the culture that you want, how you are leading, how you are a great manager today with a blended workforce — what does all that look like? How do you make sure you’re providing the support that people need?”
Paul Harvey, Vice President at Escanaba-based Engineered Machined Products (EMP), emphasizes a business’ involvement in its community as a core component to building a workplace culture where employees feel fulfilled.
“We’re basically the largest manufacturer in our county and we focus very heavily on giving back by supporting youth-based programs in our community,” says Harvey. “We have so many of our employees who are coaches and mentors with community organizations such as Big Brothers, Big Sisters or hockey programs. We encourage involvement in their community. We’ve created a culture of opportunity, and we find ways to recognize them for their contributions.”
Harvey attributes his company’s relative success in retaining employees to the community’s image of his organization and the positive culture this serves to create.
“You can talk to anybody in our community about EMP. You can call the Chamber of Commerce or the city or the schools and I think you’ll get very similar, if not substantially better, reports about EMP.”
Community engagement is normally an easy and fun thing to do that accomplishes a lot. At Hatch Stamping Company they have a Community Involvement team at all of their locations and they, along with the HR team and Management, coordinate employee events that include giving back to the communities surrounding them as well as provide sponsored events that reinforce their appreciation for the Hatch team members.
Hatch hosts many events to show appreciation for the staff and community.
“We have annual picnics for the staff, we provide employees with turkeys for Thanksgiving, and we host Christmas parties for the employees’ children...” says Hatch’s Suzanne Morrison. “These are all ongoing and only some of the efforts established to let our employees know we appreciate them and their families. Additionally, we celebrate the great work the team is doing with safety and attendance lunches. For the communities we serve, you will see the Community Involvement teams working with the employees to collect donations for Gleaners or participating in a corn hole tournament to raise money for a local robotics team or volunteering at a Chamber event or collecting supplies and donations for back to school projects — the list goes on and on!”
Kettner at The Shyft Group described their upcoming “Touch the Truck” event where they’re bringing out some of their heavy-duty trucks for local kids to explore and interact.
“The kids get to climb in the trucks and see how they work,” says Kettner. “We’ll have utility vehicles and fire trucks and those sort of things. It’s pretty exciting and it’s fun. It gives people a sense of who you are and what you do, and I think it’s a point of pride for our employees also.”
When looking to the future, Dergis has one piece of advice: “Anything employers can do to make their employees feel valued and like they are making an impact is really important.”
Whether it is by increasing pay, instituting a flexible, work-from-home schedule, reboarding or retaining staff or hosting more appreciation events, the way to retain employees is clear: make them feel safe, appreciated and that they have a future with the company. These are the weapons manufacturers must have in their arsenal to continue to battle the talent struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Have a manufacturing story to tell? E-mail email@example.com.