Trending Content

Standing the Test of Time

By AICC Staff

July 24, 2019

If you have any doubt that employee engagement is a big deal these days, you have only to do a quick Google search to find more than 400 million results. In an economy in which the unemployment rate is hovering at or below 4%, employers are understandably concerned not only about finding and hiring talented workers, but also about keeping those workers for the long term. It’s a competitive hiring environment, and employees, now more than ever, have options. Fail to effectively engage your employees, and they’ll go away.

So, what are manufacturers doing to boost engagement and minimize the risks of employee exodus? A number of things, starting with the hiring and onboarding process. Savvy employers are leaving nothing to chance when it comes to laying the foundation for a long-term, loyal, and productive relationship.

Best Practice Examples

In 1904, Albert K. Hoodwin started manufacturing paper boxes in Michigan City, Ind. After Albert tragically passed, his wife, Lillian, took over as president of Michigan City Paper Box Co. until their sons—Lou and Fred Hoodwin—were ready to join the firm in the 1940s. Lou sold the company to his son, Al, in 1993. Today, the company serves accounts such as Walmart, Gap, Coldwater Creek, and others, and it is the premier world manufacturer of cotton-filled jewelry boxes. At Michigan City Paper Box, Human Resources Specialist Brian Strauss understands the importance of building a staff of engaged employees, defining engagement as “taking an active interest in the company—understanding what it does, why it does it, and how it can be successful at doing it.”

Employees play an integral role in helping Michigan City Paper Box remain successful. “We measure our employees’ production on a daily basis,” Strauss says. “If we see production drop, we know we need to engage them.” Things have changed over the past century from both a technology and management standpoint. “Nowadays, management must take a more active role in keeping their employees engaged,” says Strauss.

Companies such as Michigan City Paper Box and Landaal Packaging Systems, the latter established in 1959, have stood the test of time and have successfully navigated and capitalized on a shifting terrain in terms of technology and consumer demand. They’re clearly doing something right. Landaal Packaging employs 210 people at a corrugated sheet plant in Bay City, Mich., and a fulfillment facility in Burton, Mich., just outside of Flint—the operations are 55 miles apart.

Landaal’s customer base is diverse, covering the automotive industry, agriculture, consumer packaged goods, foods, beverages, and nonautomotive manufacturing. The sheet plant employs machine operators, maintenance workers, and customer service staff. The fulfillment facility is staffed primarily by general laborers. Each facility has its own demographics and culture, says Landaal’s president, Steve Landaal, the third generation in this family-owned enterprise created by his grandparents.

Landaal’s sheet plant needs individuals with machine aptitude, creative thinking, and the willingness to learn, Landaal says. It’s “blessed” with a stable workforce and a business that is in a growth mode. “The fulfillment facility is more of a challenge in terms of the workforce,” Landaal says. Turnover is an issue. “In the first four months of 2019, about 65 to 70 temporary workers have come and gone,” he says. “We’ve had some people say, ‘This is not the job for me.’ With others, it’s been attendance .”

At Royal Containers, with locations in Brampton and London, Ontario, Office Manager Terri-Lynn Levesque is an example of an employee who has been effectively engaged by the company. She’s been with the company for 21 years, has worked on the machines and in customer service, basically working in all the departments she now manages. Levesque also sits on AICC’s international board of directors. Since 2018, she has represented Canada on the board.

Royal Containers, also a family-run business, has been in operation since 1980. The company operates a sheet plant in both locations. To ensure competitiveness, it holds shares in a sheet-feeder facility and a mill.

Levesque is well familiar with the challenges of finding and engaging competent workers in the competitive hiring environment companies now find themselves in. “In a recent article, I read the term ‘candidate-driven market,’” she says. “They have more ability to say no if the job is not the right fit.” Creating and maintaining a strong employer brand is an important first step for bringing the right people on board, she says.

Hiring

Finding the right people at the outset—in terms of both skill set and culture fit—is a critical first step in engagement. Today, more than ever, that requires a strong employer brand, says Levesque. “All candidates seem to have an awareness of brand; they check us out on social media and seem to understand our company before interviewing with us.”

The candidate-driven market, she says, “has created a situation in which it’s all about inbound recruiting.” She’s found that maintaining a steady stream of candidates is critical to filling positions. “That means we need to maintain brand awareness, social recruiting, keep up with blogging and our focus on LinkedIn and other social sites. We want people to get to know us and want to come work for us.”

Understanding what drives and motivates potential employees is important in terms of connecting with them and offering an employment experience that meets their professional—and personal—needs.

Royal, says Levesque, understands that today’s job seekers increasingly value technology. They’ve grown up with it, and they’re attracted to companies that are able to stay up to date with, or in front of, new technology. “Our best draw is that we have invested a lot in technology, which appeals to many candidates,” she says. “It’s an Amazon world.”

Work-life needs are also changing for today’s employees, with many requiring balance and flexibility to meet personal requirements. Landaal is recognizing this, and he says: “We’re changing our recruitment practices by looking at potential employees who have children in school and may only be able to work a four-hour shift and shifts for college students. We’re trying to be creative.”

Some of those creative efforts include partnerships with potential sources of new employees.

“At our box plant, we use an association with Michigan State University to connect with students who want to stay local after graduation,” Landaal says. “And, we’ve opened a design and innovation center in downtown Flint. Those things have definitely helped to ensure great staffing, along with our attractive fringe benefits and competitive salaries.”

Hiring right also requires cultural fit. At Royal, says Levesque, “we don’t hire anyone who doesn’t align with our core values: We respond. We care. We perform. We lead.” These core values are used as a measuring stick when considering new hires. “We apply these core values with every decision,” she says. “We want employees with the same mindset, people who will understand our mission: We build partnerships in packaging.” Finding that alignment is a critical first step in long-term engagement.

Another must-do in the hiring process is acting quickly. “We need to take the time to weed through candidates, but if that process takes more than two weeks, we know our candidates will get antsy,” Levesque says. “It’s a fine line. You can’t jump to make hiring decisions, but you need to understand that candidates don’t want to wait.” And, again, they don’t have to. There are other options.

Onboarding

The onboarding process can make or break a successful long-term relationship. Those first few weeks, days, and months on the job are critical. Employers must start engaging from day one, says Strauss. “The onboarding process will set the tone for an employee.”

Today’s employees, says Levesque, are far less likely to stay with an employer for 10 years. “Today, when you find a candidate and make a hire, you may only have that person for two to five years. My view is that you need to get maximum value from that employee for whatever length of time you have them.”

After employees are hired, says Landaal, a concerted effort is spent on engagement. “With tours and showing them different types of work, we try to help them envision themselves in the next job,” he says. “Next, we work on training the job orders and setting expectations. On the floor, they’re placed with a seasoned employee.”

Maintaining Engagement

As companies grow and time goes by, long-term employees may begin to feel “less than,” especially as company efforts focus on bringing in new talent. That doesn’t have to be the case. Taking a mindful approach to ensuring that long-term employees feel valued is an important strategy.

Landaal, for instance, is “looking at developing programs to reward longevity and raise wages.” Wages are a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to engagement, he says. “At our box plant, it’s pretty competitive—that has helped us.” At the fulfillment plant, though, it’s a different story. There, minimum wages prevail, which makes staffing a challenge, he says. “Although we’re looking at wages, we struggle with what that rate needs to be.”

Engagement requires ongoing feedback, Levesque notes. But, it’s not yesterday’s form of feedback. In addition to periodic performance reviews, she says, “regular feedback for this generation of employees is more important than ever.” That feedback needs to be ongoing. Royal has a “Shout-Out” program, a peer-to-peer recognition initiative they started two years ago. “We use a ballot box for nominations and draw a name each month. People are hungry for this; they look forward to it and are happy for their peers when they are recognized.”

At Michigan City Paper Box, Strauss says, “we meet regularly with our employees to keep them engaged. These meetings work well for us.” It’s all about ongoing communication, support, recognition, and affirmation that employees’ efforts are making a difference and contributing to the company’s success.

Importantly, Levesque notes, recognition doesn’t just have to be monetary to be effective. “A simple thank-you note can be powerful,” she says. “I have saved notes in my desk. Some are from five or more years ago, but they are thoughtful, worth reading and rereading.” Sending written notes may seem like a dying art, which is sad, says Levesque, “because it’s so meaningful at the end of the day.”

Organizations should also periodically review their policies to be sure they’re staying up to date with employee expectations. “It’s not only important in light of the #MeToo movement, but also because millennials and others entering the workforce have personal brands of conduct. Your company policies need to align with the current workforce’s set of expectations.”

Increasingly, those expectations are spanning what used to be a strict divide between work and personal lives. There’s a role for companies here, too, and that role can both help to support employees who need a leg up, and create long-term, loyal relationships. Life can be tough for some employees, and Landaal has not only recognized this but has also taken proactive steps to provide resources to help those who may have fallen on hard times.

“We partner with a local church that runs a new life center for people who have hit rock bottom due to criminal or substance abuse,” he says. “The church helps them build skills that prepare them to handle aspects of life and maintain a job by preparing for interviews and having access to reliable transportation. We have a state grant for hiring, so for any hire through the center, our grant money goes to the center.” This kind of support can go a long way toward boosting loyalty and engagement.

Increasingly, today’s manufacturers—and other employers—are recognizing that engagement is a process that begins well before the hiring process through the establishment of a strong brand and extends throughout an employee’s life cycle. It requires communication, commitment, and a concerted effort to ensure that employees’ needs—professional and personal—are met, and that they recognize the value they bring to the organization and how valued they are in return.


LinLin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based in Wisconsin. She is a frequent contributor to BoxScore.