Recruiting and Maintaining a High-Quality Manufacturing Workforce


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As with many EMS providers, Firstronic's team of people is its biggest competitive advantage. The challenge the company has faced is developing an effective way to recruit and retain high-quality team members in labor markets where experienced manufacturing talent is in short supply. A whole new generation of workforce is now entering manufacturing, and they’re not the same as the past generation, and that generation is different than the one before it. This is a fact, and the sooner companies realize this, the sooner they start to become attractive to this new generation and retain those critical assets. This article looks at the company’s systems for evaluating, onboarding and retaining a high quality workforce in its Grand Rapids, Michigan and Juarez, Mexico facilities.

The labor market dynamics associated with the two facilities are different. After more than a decade of focus on the service economy, the supply of experienced electronics assembly workers in Grand Rapids is limited. Conversely, Juarez has an experienced labor pool, but there is a high demand for experienced electronics assembly workers due to the large number of manufacturing facilities located there. In both cases, the company’s rapid growth has driven the need to attract, train and retain large numbers of employees.

For example, the Grand Rapids facility nearly doubled its workforce in 2014, adding 110 workers. Most were entry-level workers. A $300,000 grant from The Right Place Inc., in collaboration with The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), the City of Grand Rapids, and a $289,550 Skilled Trades Training Funds grant from the Michigan’s Workforce Development Agency, was used to offset the costs of the training required to hire the additional workers.

The Juarez facility was a greenfield operation established in the third quarter of 2014. While a shelter provider with a robust labor recruitment process was utilized for a fast start-up, internal HR practices play a large role in minimizing turnover and encouraging word-of-mouth within the skilled labor pool about the quality of work environment and available positions. When the facility was opened in 2014 there were 15 employees. Today, there are nearly 200 employees, making it the same size as the Grand Rapids, Michigan facility.

Several Lessons Learned in Grand Rapids Employment Surge

Lessons learned in the original Grand Rapids recruiting and training process have driven a number of refinements to the company’s process.

In the initial recruitment effort, the Grand Rapids facility adopted a 24/7 work schedule that had production employees working 12-hour shifts on alternating three-day and four-day weeks. There were four shifts. Shifts one and two work the same schedule of long and short weeks, with shifts three and four covering the alternate weeks. Employee training was scheduled in four-hour blocks on one of the days during employees’ short work week. Employees were paid for training time and could pick the day and time block that worked best with their schedules.

A training program was developed and delivered in three phases during the first three quarters of 2014. Phase I focused on Core Training for all employees, Phase II provided Advanced System Training and Phase III defined and implemented Certified Operator Training (COT) Evaluations and Classifications.

While recruiting employees was not difficult, it became apparent by early 2015 that newly hired employees were leaving in large numbers. Fourth shift turnover was highest, topping 6% per month. Virtually all of the turnover involved employees with less than a year on the job and the majority of that turnover came from people who had less than six months on the job. The unfortunate reality was that employees with no concept of what a manufacturing career entailed were finding it wasn’t what they expected.

The Quality and HR departments studied the situation in greater depth and found:

  • Not all employees hired were a good fit for the jobs they were hired to do
  • The amount of training given to new employees over a relatively short period overwhelmed some employees
  • Employees on smaller shifts felt isolated and had more limited coaching resources
  • The large amount of classroom training was not as effective in teaching key skills as on-the-job (OJT) based training
  • In some cases, such as the ERP system training, employees lacked the frame of reference to fully understand the concepts being taught

It became obvious that a more robust onboarding process needed to be developed. The goal of this new effort became making employees feel valued from day one. Training was revised to better balance introduction of concepts with employee acquisition of the requisite experience to understand and retain the information. The new employee integration into production operations process was also redesigned to ensure those employees weren’t put in situations where they felt they didn’t have a strong enough support network as they were learning their jobs.

To address the challenge of applicant lack of understanding about manufacturing careers, AccuMax, a third-party employment screening firm, was hired to administer tests designed to analyze job applicants’ competencies and aptitudes, with the end goal of matching them to the positions for which they were best suited. Under this system, applicants are scored as A, B and C. As are hired, Bs are evaluated carefully prior to hiring, and Cs are not hired.

The team then began work on a formal onboarding process that had six key elements:

  • Relationship building activities scheduled with new employees from the first day they arrived
  • A defined trainee period and ‘jacket’ to make it easy for new employees to be identified and supported by more experienced employees
  • Training program modifications to provide a better balance between classroom instruction and OJT to ensure concepts were introduced when employees had enough experience to understand the concepts they were learning
  • A formal mentoring program was created to provide strong support during working hours
  • Employees stay on first shift until they have completed their training period
  • A graduation ceremony helps reinforce team membership

As part of the onboarding process HR and training communicate closely as new employees are hired. An onboarding plan for HR and trainers outlines specific training activities plus a series of relationship-building activities for each employee’s first few weeks. New hires are not counted in production headcount for the first few weeks of training. The goal is to carefully pace the knowledge they will be receiving and make them feel that they are a valuable part of a team that supports them.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the October 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.

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