Strategies for Workforce Development Success
In the rush to gain competitive advantages in the packaging industry, companies often focus on equipment acquisitions and other financial outlays aimed at staying ahead of the competition. While faster turnaround times and higher-quality production are impressive, without strong staff support, the latest equipment can only take a company so far.
Throughout the printing and packaging industry, recruiting and retaining high-quality employees has been an emerging concern in recent years. In addition to a lack of awareness of opportunities in printing and packaging among young members of the workforce, a limited pool of experienced applicants has plagued printers and converters.
David Peterson, managing partner and director of plastics and flexible packaging and HR solutions at Direct Recruiters Inc. in Solon, Ohio, notes that the job market in the packaging industry is currently “super tight,” particularly for management-level and high-end sales employees.
“Companies can’t find anybody,” he says. “Everyone that they are looking for is already employed. It is just a very tight labor market right now.”
And as bleak as the hiring prospects are for companies searching for an experienced plant manager or director of operations, it might be even worse for converters needing help on the shop floor, he says.
“It is not a good situation,” he says. “For the entry-level, shop floor type of jobs, there is definitely a shortage, and there is a shortage of people entering into the trade.”
However, with a combination of creativity and a strategic approach to recruitment, some printers and converters are seeing success in developing and retaining a strong, engaged workforce.
Steinhauser, Inc., a label and shrink sleeve printer located near Cincinnati in Newport, Ky., stresses employee collaboration, recognition, and inclusion, explains Tara Halpin, owner and CEO. Steinhauser’s approach has helped it achieve recognition as a two-time Printing Industries of America (PIA) Best Workplace in the Americas award winner.
“Finding qualified candidates has become a common challenge for anyone in this industry,” Halpin said via email. “For Steinhauser, once we find the person with the right skill set, we then must ensure they will be a cultural fit.”
The 114-year-old company uses a thorough interview process that ensures it is a good match for the candidate, Halpin explains. Once hired, new employees are welcomed with a robust onboarding program and paired with a mentor who serves as a resource for day-to-day questions and support.
“Family comes first at Steinhauser and our team appreciates the flexibility that our culture offers,” Halpin continues. “Providing a clear path with opportunities for growth and development, as well as clarity in expectations, is important for our team. Having a written culture plan that outlines the activities we hold during the year is another great way we stay on track.”
Steinhauser has been successful at retaining employees by fostering a friendly and collaborative work environment, Halpin says. This includes focusing on the staff’s personal and professional development.
“Flexibility in work schedules is also a great benefit,” she says. “We also have ‘Steiny Smiles,’ a corporate program that allows each employee the opportunity to spend a paid day working with charities that speak to their heart.”
While maintaining a strong internal culture is central to Steinhauser, Halpin says the company strives to make early connections with the next generation of industry employees. Steinhauser hosts plant tours for elementary and middle school students to show them the career opportunities available in the printing industry.
Also, Steinhauser seeks community opportunities to facilitate introductions into the industry. It recently participated in a paid apprenticeship program in partnership with the Cincinnati Public Schools and hosted an apprentice from a local high school.
“We work on so many fun, growing brands that [students] see in their homes [and] we need to show them the passion and pride that goes along with that work,” Halpin says.
Peterson points to a need to inject new blood into the industry through initiatives including job fairs and college internships. And while internal, on-the-job training is important, many companies don’t have the luxury of waiting for new employees to get up to speed.
“The issue on the shop floor is that it’s so competitive that all of these companies are calling the same press operators constantly to get them to move,” Peterson says. “You need someone to run your press, and need to find someone that you can hire on Monday and they are there on Friday working the machine. So that is a problem.”
From a recruiting standpoint, Peterson likens the current hiring climate to free agency in sports. Some converters need to overpay experienced people to entice them to join their team.
“I would suggest having really strong offers, and try to create a great culture, which includes opportunities for people to grow,” he says. “Once you get someone into the company, it is even more important to keep these people.”
Peterson reminds packaging companies that even after a new employee is hired, competing firms will still be looking to lure the new recruit away.
“And just understand that right now, in this economy, people are going to leave,” he says. “People are leaving jobs in a shorter period of time than ever before.”
Peterson adds that it is an antiquated notion that employees are going to be loyal and not “job hop” once a better offer is on the table.
“We still have clients that make poor offers, move too slow, and don’t really ‘sell’ their company,” he explains. “These are not the days of applicants just coming to apply because they would like to work for you.”
Peterson suggests companies offer higher wages to experienced employees, speed up the interview process, and remember that interviewing is a sales job.
“Everyone should be putting a full-court-press on to sell the company and get people interested in joining their organization,” he says. “Remember that the person that you are interviewing may be getting interviewed by two or three of your competitors. It is all about speed, sales, and then having something nice to offer so you can retain them once they are there.”
While the recruiting and hiring process may be taxing for packaging companies, there is an immense opportunity for young people interested in breaking into the industry. Dr. Shaun Dudek, associate professor and program director for the graphic communications department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie, Wis., notes that 99% of graduates of the school’s program are either employed or continuing their education.
Dudek points out that every graphic communications student is required to participate in a co-op that lasts up to nine months. Students must get paid by the company during the co-op process and are barred from accepting unpaid internships. The average co-op pay rate is $14 to $15 per hour, she says.
The university’s career services department also holds a biannual on-campus job fair that attracts 200 to 300 employers. Students attend the event in business attire with resumes in hand, seeking co-ops and full-time employment.
“In the last six years I have watched our students’ salaries increase by an average of $5,000,” Dudek says. “Upon graduation, we have more jobs than we have students.”
Due to the rising cost of college education, today’s graduating students are more conscious of their financial responsibilities when looking for work, Dudek says. This may involve searching for companies close to home so they can live rent-free, or near an acquaintance, so they can split housing costs.
“One student took a job because it had a signing bonus,” Dudek says. “It was enticing because they could pay off their student loans with that signing bonus and then start fresh with the new job.”
Dudek suggests employers pay greater attention to their online presence, as students will research websites and social media accounts of potential landing spots to get a feel for the company culture. Companies that can show that they perform community service or hold special events for their employees will make a good first impression on younger potential employees, she says.
“When a company has a website that doesn’t look modern or attractive or lacks some sort of employee recognition, it’s something students recognize,” Dudek says, adding that her students are schooled on proper professional practices and the importance of a strong corporate culture.
“It’s not enough just to offer a job that sounds good,” she states.