Amid a labor shortage, productivity and retention are fueled by people-first tactics

By Sam Silverstein

When Scott Lovett became vice president of operations and human resources for Texas-based door manufacturer Steves and Sons two years ago, he was charged with rethinking the firm’s approach to attracting and retaining employees. While the family-owned company had people who had been on its payroll for decades, many newer workers were leaving in less than a year. Some failed to make it even a month. It was Lovett’s job to figure out why.

He realized that in order to tackle this problem, Steves had to foster closer ties between managers and employees. Lovett also had to double down to ensure that new hires weren’t asked to do work they didn’t understand—things he felt the company wasn’t focusing on enough in its current processes. “We had to confront some brutal facts,” he says. “We were very siloed, and we needed to create a place where people work together.”

To accomplish that, Lovett overhauled the San Antonio-based company’s training programs and enhanced the way managers and workers communicate with workers in a bid to ensure that when people sign on as employees, they develop an immediate sense of belonging.

Under Lovett’s direction, Steves introduced highly visual materials for teaching new employees how to operate equipment—a change that was aimed at the large portion of its employees whose first language isn’t English. The company also rethought positions, so new workers could start with easier tasks and progress to more demanding jobs, instead of having to hit the ground running in a role they might not be comfortable with. A hands-on training lab was also established to allow workers to practice and build their skills before working on actual products.

“When people feel comfortable using their tools, they feel better about what they’re doing,” Lovett says.

His efforts to better connect with his company’s employees have already made a big difference: Steves’ annual turnover rate has fallen by half, from 30 percent to 15 percent, and the attrition rate during people’s first month of employment is down by nearly a third, he says.

The New Norm

Steves’ experiences aren’t unique. Instead, they reflect research indicating that engaging with employees in manufacturing positions can be particularly challenging for most companies. According to Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace survey, only about one quarter of workers feel engaged with their work. By comparison, 38 percent of workers in white-collar roles say they feel engaged. Additionally, less than 30 percent of manufacturing workers feel that the mission or purpose of their employer helps them feel that the work they do is meaningful, while only about 20 percent feel that they receive encouragement, recognition or feedback about their progress, Gallup reports.

Companies across the door and window industry are taking steps to counter these issues, keenly aware that employees who feel connected to their jobs from the start are likely to be more productive and do better work. In addition, managers have concluded that making their companies more engaging places to work is key to drawing workers intent on growing rapidly. In a tight job market, employees know they can afford to be picky when selecting an employer. Designing and implementing programs that help people feel connected to and proud of their work is central to those efforts.

“You have to empower people and keep them learning,” says Steve Dillon, marketing director for Veka Inc. “You can’t just give somebody a set of safety glasses and some earplugs, train them for a few days, and turn them to their own devices, which can mean they end up being trained by different people one day to the next.”

Instead, Dillon says, it’s essential to show employees as soon as they arrive that the company is committed to their growth and success. At Veka, this involves ensuring that managers work closely with the people they hire to get a sense of what they are interested in doing, collaborate with them to develop a path to achieve those goals, and keep them informed about company developments, he says.

“People today don’t have the patience that people did in the past,” when workers could be expected to stay at a job for an extended period and placed a high value on benefits such as health care and a retirement plan, Dillon says. “They want to grow faster and feel they can influence the world more … you have to give them a glimpse into the future and what it might be for them.”

Veka also gives workers the chance to spend time in multiple departments over a period of 12 to 18 months in order to keep them from feeling boxed in by a single task.

“We’re not building cars or computers, but we keep the work as exciting and intriguing as we can,” Dillon says. “People will not be so hung up on what they’re making an hour if you pay attention to their natural tendency to want to keep growing and driving ahead. They’ll understand that if they continue to improve and move up the ladder, the monetary rewards will come.”

Julie Winkle Giulioni, a South Pasadena, Calif., consultant to organizations about strategies for engaging with employees, says that assessment is spot on.

According to exit interviews she has studied, approximately 90 percent of people who leave a position say they decided to depart because they did not see the potential to grow. In addition, companies that focus on providing developmental opportunities for workers have retention rates that are 40 percent better than organizations that do not make employee growth a priority, she says.

“There’s always going to be a competition for the best and brightest talent, and we have to crack the code on this,” says Giulioni. “A huge piece of the puzzle involves how committed and skillful you become at growing people in your organization.”

Embracing Individuality

Another powerful way to help keep employees feeling satisfied with their work includes personally recognizing them, says Beverly Kaye, a Los-Angeles-based author and consultant who helps companies implement strategies for developing, engaging and retaining employees. This means that managers and executives should take time to know what each of their workers does and make a point of praising them when they do a good job, she says.

“The secret is showing that you care, and there are myriad ways to show that,” says Kaye.

Officials for Andersen Corp. say their company is embracing the idea for focusing on people as individuals, by introducing a companywide effort for celebrating the diverse backgrounds of its employees. The company, based in Bayport, Minn., encourages workers to share their interests and concerns with one another and their managers, and trains supervisors on how to engage with people from different ethnicities, says Karen Richard, senior vice president and chief human resources officer. This year, Andersen officially marked Pride Month, she added.

“We have partnered with leaders across the enterprise to cultivate an open and transparent work environment,” Richard says, “We are casting the net much wider than ever before.”

As part of its efforts to attract and cultivate a diverse employee base, Andersen has developed programs to help staff members with limited English skills communicate. The company provides access to translation services, and offers English courses at some of its facilities. “We’ve demonstrated that [the courses] help people progress and get promoted,” says Richard. “There’s a direct ROI on that investment.”

Andersen is not alone in concentrating on helping people overcome language barriers, either. For example, Steves, which also has a significant number of non-native English speakers on its payroll, also offers English proficiency courses, says Lovett. The company also began offering high school equivalency classes to its workers about two years ago, he says.

Companies in the door and window industry are also making hiring decisions these days that are based on cultural fit.

Managers at ProVia, a door and window maker in Sugar Creek, Ohio, are making a concerted effort to discuss the company’s mission and values—including the fact that it’s guided by the deep religious faith of its family ownership— with potential employees before they’re hired. The goal is to avoid situations where new workers realize they don’t fit in with the organization after they’ve accepted a position, says Craig Mullet, the company’s vice president of corporate care.

After people arrive, ProVia works to ensure they feel connected with their work by emphasizing the importance of their products to the people who buy them, Mullet adds.

“Yes, we are making doors and windows, which can seem mundane. But those products are going into somebody’s house, and by doing a good job you’re helping them feel protected and have beautiful views,” he says.

Paying close attention to people’s sense of well-being on the job is another key to engaging and motivating employees.

In a reflection of this, executives at Marvin, in Warroad, Minn., place a premium on maintaining comfortable work environments. They have concluded that there is a direct relationship between the physical spaces where people do their jobs and their productivity.

Christine Marvin, the company’s director of corporate strategy and design, says the company is working on improvements to its manufacturing facilities and offices that include overhauling breakrooms and restrooms. The company is also modifying buildings to channel natural light to areas located away from windows, she says.

Proof in Accolades

Efforts by door and window companies to build inclusive, people-oriented workplaces have drawn notice from publications that recognize standout employers, too. For example, Thompson Creek Window Co., of Lanham, Md., was cited in June as a top workplace by The Washington Post. The company also recently made Inc. magazine’s list of companies deemed “Best Workplaces” in the U.S.

Of course, companies have to convince people to join them before they can help them fit in and grow—and that can be a challenge.

While many of the installers who work for A.B.E. Doors and Windows, of Allentown, Pa., have been with the company for decades, the company has been having a tough time finding replacements for workers who move on or retire, says Jim Lett II, vice president. For example, the company has been trying to hire a carpenter for more than two years, Lett says.

Others aim to snag their next employees years in advance. ProVia invites middle school students to visit in order to show them that it offers challenging, interesting work in a growth-oriented environment, says Mullet.

When and for how long, these measures will help is anyone’s guess, but one things for certain: Door and window companies will continue innovating for as long as it takes to fill the gaps.

Sam Silverstein is a contributing writer for [DWM] magazine.

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