Hiring The Right Stuff

Good people can come from out-of-the-way agencies. Keeping them can require a lot of in-house training

The problem isn't numbers--we see an endless stream of job applicants at my family-owned factory. It's quality that's hard to find. Mostly, the job seekers we get are a sorry lot. Few are older than 20, and many look like they haven't changed clothes in a week. Chances are only one of the five folks who show up in a given week will pass our reading and technical-skills tests. Of those who succeed, about half will fail the drug screen. If a person manages to get hired at Emerald Packaging Inc., our plastic-package manufacturing company, he or she has only a 30% chance of lasting a year.

We have lived with this for a long time. When we were just looking for people to do production work, packing plastic bags in boxes, the relatively limited abilities of those we hired didn't matter. No longer. Our printing presses are getting too sophisticated, and the quality demanded by customers is now too exacting to put up with ragtag recruits. We have to find people who can think and care about quality, or we won't make the grade. Hiring off the street, in other words, just won't cut it.

TUITION PAYMENTS. So how's a company like ours to find the skills it needs? For entry-level employees, we're teaming up with agencies that vet applicants for us, approving only those who pass muster. Many of these groups are nontraditional employment agencies such as refugee support groups, churches, or welfare-to-work transition programs. But for our highly skilled jobs such as mechanics, bookkeepers, and machine operators, more and more, we're training internal candidates and paying tuition so people can go to school and pick up new skills. Sniffs one longtime manager: "It seems like we're becoming an educational institution."

He's not far off. Since last June, we have put half of our 85 plant employees through 40 hours or more of training. Thanks to $25,000 supplied by the state of California Employment Training Panel, we have paid employees to teach production skills to their junior counterparts. We also offered a weeklong course on printing for our newer press operators, a 60-hour course on quality control for our more senior press operators, and another weeklong course for our employees who make bags. This is the first time most of our employees have received any formal training beyond what they got when they first arrived--in some cases, more than 20 years ago.

The payoff has been immediate. Simply by teaching our press operators some basic troubleshooting skills and making our quality standards clear, we have improved our print quality markedly. Spot inspections by managers have turned up far fewer flawed print jobs; complaints by customers are down by 50%. In our bag-making unit, waste has fallen about 25% since the course--a potential savings of over $100,000 for the year. Also important, morale on the shop floor has improved because the workers see they may get a chance to move into better jobs.

Recruiting outside to fill the highly skilled top jobs is a lot harder, though. Silicon Valley, only a short drive from our factory, has swept up most of the engineers and mechanics who might consider working for us. But even if we did find a willing engineer, we'd still be stuck with the training.

COLLEGE MATERIAL. So instead, we have decided to upgrade the skills of some of our best white-collar and more senior hourly employees by sending them back to school. We have already sent one of our younger office employees to school to learn accounting, expecting that she'll succeed our current controller, who is about to retire. Recently, we agreed to pay the tuition of our top maintenance man so he can earn an engineering degree going to a local college after work. He agreed, in return, to remain with us for five years after he finishes his degree.

Despite our recent successes, I suspect we'll always struggle to find good new employees. We're a growing company in a tough labor market. Worse yet, factory work is not most people's idea of a good job, even if the pay and benefits are decent. My aim is to balance the fight for quality hires by upgrading the skills of those who already work for us. Our early success with training--both internal and external--gives me some optimism. Which is more than I feel most days while I watch the latest job candidate shuffle past my office door.

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