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Building Bench Strength

By AICC Staff

May 27, 2016

The employment landscape has been shifting over the past few years as the economy begins to show signs of improvement and the baby boomers, as anticipated, begin retiring in large numbers. Box manufacturers, like businesses in other industries, are finding themselves challenged to maintain a strong bench of talent not only to meet current needs, but also to ensure future productivity and success. One good source of potential leaders: employees already on their payrolls. These are the employees who, with the right training, support, and opportunities, will rise into leadership positions in the future. Finding, keeping, and developing them, though, can be a challenge.

Richard Goldberg is vice president of operations with President Container Group, with production facilities in Middletown, New York. “Staffing and retention are our biggest challenges,” he says. But, he adds: “We believe our training, tracking, and qualification system is a best practice. We gained a lot of practice in hiring early on, initially bringing on 160 people.” The company tailors each training program to the position description and needs of the employee. Some programs are 30 days; others are 60 days or more. They cover safety and manufacturing skills, concluding with an oral exam and practical test.

“Understanding current perceptions and providing opportunities to get a real-world perspective on what manufacturing actually entails can help to change misconceptions.”

Once the training is complete, “the employee is in a position to be able to grow because they have the basics,” Goldberg says. “Then, we continue to work with them through mentoring and interaction with senior staff. Over time, they can truly call themselves a boxmaker.” Goldberg believes the company’s training program, which emerged after startup hiring and restaffing resulting from moving the production facility to New York, is first-rate.

Other facilities have found that the ability to work with staff on a temporary basis can help to ease some of the anxiety that comes with making any new hire.

Testing Them Out

Gene Marino is executive vice president of Rusken Packaging, Inc., in Cullman, Alabama. At Rusken, says Marino, turnover has not been a significant issue. However, he says, hiring can take focus away from critical production activities. At Rusken, many employees are initially brought on board as part-timers on a temporary basis. Rusken works with a third-party firm to help find and select these employees. “Our practices give us a chance to test them out before offering full-time positions,” Marino says. An HR manager works with the third-party agency to further refine the exact skills needed by potential hires. Rusken also hires college interns to introduce and expose students to the industry.

“We don’t seek out any particular majors, but we want to give energetic college students a taste of the industry,” Marino says. That taste of the business includes having the interns work on equipment efficiency studies to get comfortable working with managers, software, and reporting, he adds.

Goldberg also works with a local high school’s technology classes to introduce students to manufacturing, engineering, design, and the corrugated container industry. “We make it fun,” Goldberg says, noting that the students use corrugated materials to design a surfboard and sled, for example.

At local high school job fairs, Goldberg helps graduating students sign up for upcoming interviews. “As we work with potential employees, we try to instill a sense of patience,” Goldberg says. “Sometimes they don’t understand the concept of ‘paying your dues’ before you can advance. We try to help them realize that in our business, you start out in jobs requiring a lot of labor before you can gain the skills necessary to move into positions that require less labor and more brainpower.”

President Container Group also takes advantage of talent available through local schools to help with staffing. Appealing to these younger generations is an important area of focus.

Appealing to a Younger Generation

Cheryl Wheeler is director of employee relations with The StandFast Group in Carol Stream, Illinois. As baby boomer employees begin to retire, one of the challenges that faces any organization is attracting younger generations. Educating young people about manufacturing is a great place to start, says Wheeler. “We work closely with an organization in the area that helps young people with career planning. When we meet with them, the first question we ask them is, ‘What do you think of when you think of manufacturing?’”

Their answers reveal some misconceptions. “Typical answers are manufacturing is dirty, old, and run-down, pay is low, and there are no career opportunities,” says Wheeler. “We spend a lot of time with them washing away their negative perceptions and giving them a modernized version of manufacturing. We take them on tours of our facility and have them meet our employees. Seeing firsthand that manufacturing today is nothing like manufacturing of the past is eye-opening.”

Understanding current perceptions and providing opportunities to get a real-world perspective on what manufacturing actually entails can help to change misconceptions. “They see that people have interesting career paths and opportunities for career advancement,” says Wheeler. “They see that equipment and technology are state-of-the-art and the average income for manufacturing jobs is actually higher than nonmanufacturing ones.”

To help make manufacturing jobs more appealing to these younger contingents, George Rathman, CEO of The Alternative Board Atlanta Central, an organization that provides executive peer advisory boards serving more than 3,000 business owners worldwide, suggests:

  • Survey current employees and find out what makes the job appealing and what could make the job more appealing.
  • Research best practices of what the manufacturing industry is doing to make these jobs appealing and more engaging for a workforce.
  • Develop or refine the career paths currently available.
  • Develop a learning—as opposed to a training—program.
  • Bring the group together to share ideas on a regular basis to improve current manufacturing culture.

But, notes Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return Selection in Toronto, manufacturers shouldn’t be too quick to assume that there’s a stigma inherently associated with manufac­t­uring jobs. “Manufacturing jobs are very appealing, and a lot of people want them. The problem is, many manufacturers don’t market their roles properly,” he says. “When you review job advertisements or job descriptions, they’re often terrible. Rewrite these documents, striking a balance between the company’s needs and the applicants’ wants.”

Once these young employees are onboard, there is much that manufact­urers can do to help develop them for future leadership roles.

Preparing Staff to Lead

Armour suggests that manufacturers have a framework in place to establish leaders. “To develop leaders, manufacturers need an organizational framework and career paths that outline the requirements both in terms of responsibilities and capabilities.” Over the years, he says, many traditional leadership development programs have been cut. A good alternative, he says, “is to provide individualized training, in a ‘just-in-time’ manner, for each person selected for a leadership role.”

Rathman offers some tips to help manufacturers prepare employees for leadership positions:

  • Communicate leadership expectations to new employees, and place them in a “junior” role.
  • Empower employees to make decisions and learn from them.
  • Utilize a mentoring program.
  • Implement short-term assignments in the next leadership role.
  • Find out from other industries how they develop and groom leaders.

“To develop leaders, manufacturers need an organizational framework and career paths that outline the requirements both in terms of responsibilities and capabilities.”

— Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return Selection

Leadership development can be daunting. There are, says Armour, “more than 75 leadership abilities manufacturing leaders use.” Rather than attempting to tackle all of them at once, he suggests identifying two, based on highest current needs, every six months and then providing development in these areas. These may include delegation, conflict management, decision-making, directing, hiring, etc.

Establishing a leadership selection process that is transparent and providing opportunities for those not selected to develop the skills and abilities that may be holding them back are also important.

Keeping Staff on Board

Retention is critical for leadership and other staff. There is much they can do to help generate the kind of engagement and loyalty that can lead to commitment, productivity, and longevity.

It starts, says Wheeler, with employees’ direct managers. “I definitely believe in the old saying, ‘People leave managers, not companies,’” she says. “It’s imperative to communicate on a regular basis with your people. I recommend that leaders sit down with their employees one-on-one on a regular basis.” Those meetings, says Wheeler, should consist of setting priorities, goals, and actions, as well as reviewing past performance.

“I’m also a big believer in setting career development goals and developing career paths,” says Wheeler. “Employees should take the lead in developing their goals, and leaders should coach as needed and support their career development.”

Culture goes a long way toward engaging employees and earning their loyalty. At StandFast, says Wheeler, “we have a team-based culture that empowers our people. Everyone at every level is encouraged to take the lead on their team, make independent decisions, and suggest ways to improve their processes. We ask them to be thought leaders and hands-on decision-makers.”

Time is running out in terms of ensuring the bench strength that will position box manufacturers to address future staffing needs, says Armour. “Manufacturers need to move quickly,” he says. He suggests considering a “boomers mentor program,” allowing staffers nearing retirement to work part-time and come in to coach and develop the next generation. “Many boomers would jump at these opportunities,” he says. In addition to this type of program, while still on the payroll, boomers can play an important role in nurturing and developing the next generation. “It is incredibly helpful to have existing leaders mentor one or two ‘up and comers’ each year,” he says. “The mentor usually needs training and support, but it also serves to help the novice while reinvigorating the established leaders.”

Wheeler agrees. “Mentorships can be important in both attracting and retaining top talent that is interested in career advancement,” she says. “Mentoring builds skill sets, provides career guidance, and passes on professional and organizational knowledge. Most of all, mentoring shows your employees that you value them and they are an important piece of the company’s future.”

Based on his employee recruiting and retention activities, Goldberg offers the following advice to other manufacturers:

  • Be patient, especially with employees who are trying to learn new skills.
  • Help employees understand the “snowball effect” of being late or not showing up for work.
  • Find ways to inspire workers to take pride in what they are manufacturing. Even a pizza box can be something to brag about to your family.
  • Be active in your community to ensure you have a steady pipeline of qualified candidates.
  • Provide mentoring and offer growth opportunities through associations such as AICC.
  • Stay engaged in the process of working with people of all ages and backgrounds. Talk about the time-sensitive aspects of the manufacturing industry. Don’t assume that all generations share the same opinions about the importance of work.

Provide employees the training they need, and encourage them to tackle difficult projects to challenge themselves, says Wheeler. “Being heard, cared for, appreciated, and feeling good about the work you’ve done go a long way in retaining current employees. Hire talented, ethical people, and then give them the tools and resources to succeed.”


LinLin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to BoxScore.