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Engaging and retaining employees: management practices that pay off

Projects | January 1, 2018 | By:

A traveling head machine is fully automatic, with the operator clamping the fabric and then running the machine “hands off.” In this photo, the operator is preparing an outdoor awning canvas to be double stitched with a one-inch hem. Photo: Pinz.

Like many industries that rely on skilled workers, the specialty fabrics industry is facing a shortage of qualified personnel. As manufacturers and fabricators develop recruitment efforts to attract the next-generation workforce, management must simultaneously find strategies to retain the employees they already have—and keep their skills updated.

Adapt and engage

Industry employers and insiders agree that training is fundamental to retaining personnel. “Employee engagement is a direct function of training,” says industry consultant and former manufacturing company owner Kevin Kelly, MFC, IFM, CPP. “You can have all the social activities to build camaraderie that you want, but if you don’t have training as a value, you will not get the retention.”

For some companies, however, realizing this objective requires a shift in thinking. “With prior generations, it was very hard to get them to train someone because they interpreted their knowledge as job security,” Kelly says. “They knew their job, they knew how to do it, and training others was not part of the culture.”

That attitude still exists today among more seasoned workers. “Particularly with installers, it’s tough to get experienced crew members to train new members when they can just do the job faster themselves or wait to get a different crew member to work with,” says Pete Weingartner, CPP, president of Queen City Awning, Cincinnati, Ohio. “They complain about how slow the new guys are, but don’t take the time to show them how to do it right.”

Weingartner empathizes with that position, however. “Understandably, they still have a job to do and want the best performance bonus possible,” he says.

Kelly recalls his own experience of an industry veteran training him how to cut and lay out awnings. “He had been doing this work for over 40 years and had no more interest in training a 16-year-old kid than the man on the moon,” Kelly says. But that approach “doesn’t fly in this day and age. In today’s workplace, the prevailing attitudes are much more collaborative.”

According to Kelly, the Millennial generation wants coaching and support to help them achieve an intended goal or result. “That’s easy to say, but if you’re not comfortable or weren’t trained to do that yourself, it can be a struggle, especially for manufacturing people whose main focus has been on building things and getting a project done as fast as possible,” he says.

To make this transition, business owners and management need to demonstrate why they are excited and interested in the specialty fabrics field. “You can’t expect someone coming out of trade school or college to share your vision if you do not make it compelling,” Kelly says. “And you do that by spending time with these people to teach them what is needed to achieve success in your particular business and in different positions within the company, such as a general manager or production manager.”

To turn that interest and excitement into a recruiting and retention tool, the business owner must be visibly engaged in the task as the leader, so that everyone in the company knows that training is a valuable part of the culture. “A lot of key training is not a six-hour marathon twice a week,” says Kelly. “It’s the five-minute conversations that take place during daily walk-arounds where you coach workers while in the midst of the actual task.”

Train to retain

Leadership at Eide Industries Inc., Cerritos, Calif., recognizes that as the work environment changes, so too does the approach to employee retention. “The workplace is administratively and contractually more complex today,” says vice president Joe Belli. “Forty years ago we had five administrative personnel and 60 in manufacturing. Now we have 20 administrative and 46 in manufacturing.”

Employee expectations of the job have also evolved during that time. “In the 1970s, our employees were happy as long as we kept up with marketplace benefits and made our weekly payroll,” Belli says. “Fast forward to Millennials, who require instant gratification, constant recognition and stimulation. Employers who don’t make an effort to work with this generation will be faced with high turnover.”

Like many of his industry peers, Belli sees the importance of education. Eide Industries, which specializes in shade and tension structures, offers continuous on-the-job and external training to its employees. The company implements several management layers to monitor training needs so that “when something is not working or requires new training, we can fix it,” Belli says.

Even the most seasoned worker can benefit from training. The tent crew at Glawe Awning and Tent Co., Fairborn, Ohio, has attended IFAI Tent Rental Division training as well as the Tent Expo. “Even though most of them have over 20 years of experience, they always learn something or discover a machine that would work well for us,” says chief operating officer (COO) Kathy Schaefer, IFM.

Ongoing training addresses challenges facing a tent company. Schaefer cites the need to understand geometry and algebra in order to use the IFAI staking and ballasting studies, as well as the technical issues involved with permitting and tent or structure installation. Safety and equipment training is also essential.

Queen City Awning uses training to promote from within. After a few years of working with a lead installer, new installers have the opportunity to become lead installers based on their on-the-job training. Shop employees will learn to work in multiple departments over their years of employment, becoming more valuable to the company, and graduate to higher paying positions, according to Weingartner.

While training is a critical component in preventing turnover, Eide personnel rank health insurance, job satisfaction, recognition for the work they do and opportunity for advancement as important influential factors in staying with the company.

“Our employees let us know when things are out of balance, but ultimately it’s management’s responsibility to recognize when those conditions are out of balance, and it’s our responsibility to take corrective action,” Belli says.

The majority of employees at Queen City Awning “are most concerned about their take-home pay at the end of the week or quarter, so bonuses and overtime pay seem to be the most important benefits,” Weingartner says. “They also want to be able to have the materials they need to get the job done without a lot of stress.”

Building a better culture

When Pinz Pty. Ltd., a manufacturer of blind and shade products in Seaton, South Australia, rapidly grew from a business of two to dozens of employees, the company had to make some changes to retain new and veteran workers. “Somewhere around 30 employees was the tipping point where we started to lose the family culture, that personal interaction with everyone,” says managing director David Snoad.

Once the company reached 50 employees, Pinz professionalized its approach to human resources, and the business in general. The company now employs 55 workers, and up to 70 during the busy season. “When you lose that small family business culture, you need to put these things in place to keep employees informed and happy,” Snoad says. “You need someone they can trust to sort out any grievances, or discuss their performance or career aspirations.”

While expanding over the last few years, Pinz has separated its business into smaller “product” units in three different sites. The one that works best comprises a team of 11 people. “They are self-managing, have a great team culture and need very little supervision,” Snoad says. “There is probably a reason most sports teams are made up of around 11 players.”

Over the years, Snoad has realized there is no one-size-fits-all approach to employee retention. “One employee might love change or get quickly bored, so you need to move them constantly. Others are horrified if you suggest that job rotation is a good idea,” he says. “Some people seek opportunities to advance, and others are happy being told what to do.”

Even though worker tastes and preferences are individual, Pinz has implemented practices to create a better workplace culture. One example is a flexible schedule. As part of a rostered day-off system, staff work nearly nine-hour days for nine out of 10 days. Although employees work every day during the company’s busiest two months of the year, in the quiet months they receive four weeks’ annual leave, plus nearly four weeks of rostered days off.

Benefits and beyond

For Andrea and Mark Lampson, owners of Dorchester Awning Company, Kingston, Mass., workforce retention boils down to one simple rule: ‘Treat your employees like you treat your customers.”

The Lampsons purchased Dorchester Awning in September 2006, with no knowledge of awnings and no experience in running a company. At that time, the company basically had no employee benefits at all. They talked to their employees and came up with a benefits program that was designed to help improve employees’ lives and would work to support them if problems occurred. “One aspect of employee morale is employees who feel that their needs are covered,” says Andrea.

Benefits include health insurance: The company pays 50 percent for single and 33 percent for family coverage, and pays for the first half of the deductible. Also provided is a life insurance policy equal to one year’s salary, short-term and long-term disability, voluntary dental and a company-matching 401k program. Employees are also given an annual bonus (based on profitability), annual vacation time, and a company-wide shutdown from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1 to ensure special “family time.” The Lampsons view their employees as family, and encourage them to stay for the long term.

When employee issues do arise, rather than finger-pointing and recriminations, Dorchester’s policies support positive feedback, analyzing the causes of the problem and incorporating systemic corrective actions. Underlying issues are addressed in a timely fashion. Employees are also encouraged to cross-train in different roles when feasible, making for a much more flexible and productive work team.

As a result, Andrea reports, when she calls customers after a project is completed, she frequently receives glowing reviews about her employees, their attitudes and the quality of their work. The customers express a level of comfort and safety knowing that Dorchester Awning employees have been with the company for years—and in a number of cases, for decades.

In 11 years, the Lampsons have expanded from eight employees to 20—with no turnover. And three employees have been with the company for 40 years each—which translates to spending less time training new hires and more time improving upon the skills of the existing workforce.

“Most of our employees are multimodal, meaning they can take on many different tasks,” says Andrea Lampson. “You always have to train in order to be the better cog in the wheel, to stay one step ahead of your competition.”

Glawe Awning and Tent employs 12 year-round staffers, the majority of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years. Long-term employees have 19 days paid vacation/personal time and are paid for all major holidays. The business pays for life insurance for every employee and offers dental insurance at a reasonable cost.

Schaefer admits that she doesn’t typically take a hard line with workers as other small business owners might. “Sometimes that may weaken my authority and I have to get very strict and stay that way for a while, but they know I will leave them alone if they do their jobs correctly,” she says.

A positive environment

Despite all efforts that a company’s owner or leadership makes to retain employees, workers will still leave, and often for reasons unknown to the employer. Business owners must continually contend with the realities of workplace dynamics. As the quote popularized by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln goes, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

There’s no magic formula to employee retention. But employers in the specialty fabrics industry can improve their chances through continuous training, competitive pay and benefits, and open communication between workers and management.

“We still have our ups and downs, our bad times, when staff are generally not happy,” says Pinz’s Snoad. “Recognizing it quickly and turning that around on an individual and/or organizational level is the real key to retaining staff.”

Holly O’Dell is a freelance writer and editor based in Joshua Tree, Calif.

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