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Searching for a Silver Lining

By AICC Staff

March 21, 2022

Well before COVID-19, boxmakers and other manufacturers were challenged with labor shortages. Now, as the box business booms, the ongoing lack of workers is affecting growth, delivery times and fulfillment, and customer service.

“Labor has been challenging across the board—from drivers to warehouse to production,” says Finn MacDonald, president of Independent II.

It isn’t just entry-level employees who are hard to come by. “We have highly skilled, experienced operators in converting,” MacDonald says, “and they’re getting to the point where they’re looking at retiring. So we have an experienced workforce that is, essentially, aging out, which raises the challenge of training a new generation of craftspeople. How do you train printers in the art of printing? How do you train die-cut operators or teach the art of stacking, the art and finesse of gluing? We face that challenge day in and day out.”

Qualified Strategies

Boxmakers are trying several different strategies to meet labor challenges while continuing to develop a strong workforce. Some are increasing collaborations with high schools, trade schools, and community colleges to nurture an informed and skilled workforce for the future. Some are changing how they recruit and retain workers. And some are evaluating which steps in the boxmaking process can benefit from additional automation, freeing up existing employees to shift into positions currently going unfilled.

Christine V. Walters, an independent industry consultant with FiveL Co., has seen some manufacturers go even further to find the workers they need. “Their philosophy is, if we’re having trouble finding enough qualified people to fill our jobs, maybe our qualifications aren’t what they need to be in light of the current climate,” she says. “So they’re making adjustments. I’m seeing employers asking if new hires really need to come in with two or three years of experience. Maybe one year is enough. Maybe six months is enough. Do we really care if you have a high school diploma or GED? Maybe not. I’ve seen employers eliminating testing for marijuana and other drugs and relaxing their standards regarding background checks. People are reaching out to populations that they might not have reached out to before—including so-called second-chance hiring programs that serve people with criminal histories.”

Donna Roberts, human resource manager at SMC Packaging Group, has mixed feelings about lowering qualifications across the board. “Having high expectations is important,” she says. “Gallup polls will tell you that 80% of people will rise to meet your expectations.”

At the same time, she notes that many of the most successful people at SMC did not come to the company with a full complement of skills. “We taught them those skills. So a willingness to learn is important,” she says. “Character is also very important to us. We can absolutely give people the training they need to run machinery and make boxes. What we can’t train people on are things like aptitude and capabilities and character. Those have to come with the candidate and are not negotiable. I would not lower my standards on those.

“I do think we’re going to have to take on a bigger burden of skilling people up for the work we need them to do,” Roberts continues. “We’re going to have to help young people develop the work ethic that we used to just naturally see 20, 30 years ago. When you teach people to work, show them they have value, and support and appreciate them, they’ll rise to your standard. Leadership really has shifted from supervising to focusing more on equipping, supporting, and training.”

Connections and Careers

Roberts believes employers may need to adjust how they recruit if they want to reach today’s workforce. “I was at an HR conference recently,” she recalls, “and some of the individuals there were really frustrated with their recruiting efforts. They had published some ads and put hiring signs on their front lawn, and they didn’t understand why people weren’t beating down their doors to get a job there. They weren’t even getting applications.”

For Roberts, the reason was clear: “The next generation doesn’t do business that way. They’re not driving around looking at the outside of your building deciding whether they want to work there. They also probably have outdated ideas of what a manufacturing career looks like. They’re thinking ‘dark, dirty, dangerous assembly lines,’ and we’ve got to get them past those images.”

SMC has had success using social media to deliver a more accurate, more appealing story to younger workers. Instagram and Facebook have been the company’s main channels; others may find Twitter, TikTok, or YouTube more effective. The key, Roberts says, is to know your audience and know where they spend their time online. Then create promotions tailored to those channels and to your target market. “We’ve gotten a lot of interest that way,” she notes.

Once a potential employee is interested, the company encourages an in-person tour. “When we bring candidates in, we always give them a tour,” Roberts says. “I want them to see what people are doing and see if that is for them before they make a decision.”

Walters recommends highlighting, early on, the benefits of building a career in the industry. “Yes, the fast-food place down the street might pay a higher hourly rate at the start,” she says, “but where will that job take you? What other benefits can they offer? How much training and professional development will you get? This kind of indirect compensation is something boxmakers could emphasize from the very first interview.

“It’s also important to pay attention to what’s happening once you’ve got someone in the door, especially if you’re bringing them in with less knowledge, skills, or abilities than they otherwise would have had,” Walters continues. “This is where it can really help to [offer] a more extensive onboarding experience, a longer orientation period, partnering and job shadowing relationships—those sorts of things. That gives you a foundation from which to make sure these folks get the training and skills they need to do the job. And you’d hope that new hires would then see the time and investment you’re putting into them and feel more committed to their jobs and the company. The more we can engage our folks, the better.”

Finally, Walters believes it’s important to learn from your current employees, especially your star performers. Interview them—she refers to this as a “stay” interview, as opposed to an “exit” interview—and ask, What keeps you here? What do you appreciate about this company? Why is this a good place to work? “Use that information when presenting your company to potential employees. Your long-term employees can be some of your very best sales and marketing people.”

Turning to Technology

When seeking creative solutions to workforce development, it’s important that nothing be kept off the table. MacDonald notes that his company is looking at how to be competitive and creative when it comes to both pay and benefits, how to best manage the calendar workweek and various shifts—for example, the cost, livability, and sustainability of what a second or third shift would mean for a Saturday—and how those changes might impact current and future employees.

Traditionally, offering more work hours meant more dollars in employees’ pockets, MacDonald points out, and that was seen as a good thing. But nowadays, he says, “More hours can keep someone from taking the job in the first place. They don’t want to work 10 hours a day or on Saturdays. So we’re having to find a balance between employee needs and customer needs. That means we’re also investing in equipment and processes that allow us to make the most of every hour in the day.” That means looking at the efficiencies provided by technology, including robotics and automation.

MacDonald stresses that adding robotics and other automated processes on the shop floor does not mean you’re decreasing your head count. “You’re reallocating your human resources,” he explains. “You’re saying that the two, three, or four people that automation will replace can now go fill the two, three, or four jobs that have been unfilled. Or they can be freed to move over to this new piece of machinery I want to buy. No one’s walking out of the company. They’re just walking somewhere else in the company to get the job done.”

Equipment, robotics, and automation will be increasingly critical when it comes to managing labor challenges, MacDonald believes. “I only see that changing if there is some sort of influx of labor that has a different set of priorities than what we’re currently seeing—people who want more hours, who are eager to learn, who want to put their head down and do the job,” he says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”

At the same time, he says, there is a limit to just how much of the work can be relegated to technology. “There’s no getting around the fact that our type of manufacturing depends on some hard work, some sweat and tears, and some truly skilled craftspeople,” he says.

A Fantastic Choice

SMC Packaging may be a rarity among boxmakers and other manufacturers these days: Roberts reports that all of their positions are currently filled. “I know a lot of boxmakers are struggling to find workers, but we have fared really well,” she says. She attributes the company’s unusual success to the decision to distinguish SMC as an employer of choice.

“Our leadership has always been very active in the community, serving on different boards and making a difference,” Roberts says. “I think that has helped establish a reputation for us as an employer of choice. Others in the community recognize SMC Packaging because of our community involvement, since we volunteer at community events and support local charities. That’s good branding, but it’s also the right thing to do. These days, people care about the company they’re joining and what that company stands for. Job seekers like a company that’s giving back to the community, that cares about its people and puts its money where its mouth is.”

Practically speaking, that means the company is committed to taking care of its people and then trusting those people to take care of the business. “We make sure they’re trained and equipped to do their jobs well,” Roberts says. “Once they’re equipped and part of the family, we do what we can to hold on to them. So we have worked a lot on leadership training, which I believe is the key to retention. And then, we do everything we can to avoid having any kind of ‘us and them’ mentality, which often happens between leadership and employees in manufacturing. We’re all on the same side here. We try to make sure that’s evident in how we do things every single day. I think that’s been a big difference maker for us.”

A Silver Lining?

Despite the current wave of challenges, there may be a silver lining to the labor issue that too often gets overlooked: “I believe there are enough qualified people out there to fill the positions,” Walters says.

Roberts agrees. “There are plenty of people taking jobs every day out there,” she says. “The challenge is figuring out what it takes to make them choose you. We need to understand what job seekers are looking for and then do our best to accentuate what we have to offer that distinguishes us from other employers in our area.

“Too often we assume people know a lot about our company and our business. Chances are they don’t, unless they have a friend or family member who’s worked here. It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re marketing well the jobs that we have and making sure people understand that, if they choose our company, they’re making a fantastic choice for their future.”


PortraitRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.