At Manufacturing Day, a new take on attraction and retention (hint: Employers need to change)

Panelists: Recognize motivation of employees has changed — and ask yourself if you have right people leading them — then invest in training

Greg Hall, the mill manager at Rex Lumber Co. in Englishtown, said something that seemingly all of the nearly 750 attendees of Made in New Jersey Manufacturing Day were thinking: Attracting and retaining employees is a big challenge — and a big concern.

Everyone knows this isn’t just a problem in the manufacturing sector, but the more than 10,000 small-business manufacturers in the state (more than you thought, we know) do have a unique perspective on the problem.

Simply put, most manufacturers have a mix of senior people (preparing to retire) and a younger generation that simply does not view jobs as lifetime contracts. Figuring out how to connect with the next generation of workers, promptly, is a key to survival, not just success.

“I see the changes in what a younger person is looking for out of a job,” Hall said. “It’s not always necessarily the pay or promotion. They have different life experiences. And they’ve grown up differently than the previous generation, which I think influences what they are looking for.

“These are not workers from my parents’ generation.”

Indeed, the days of hoping to have a spouse, kids and a house by 30 are over, Hall said. He said many of his younger employees not only still live at home — they are still trying to figure out their life’s journey.

The key is for companies to have a greater understanding of this, Hill said.

“Understanding their priorities have changed — and adapting to those priorities — has been an important piece of what we’ve done,” he said.

Hill said there are no other options.

“You’re not going to change the generation,” he said.

Hill was joined by Gabrielle Spezia, a human resources manager at Montvale-based Coining, and others on a panel involving workforce development — always a popular topic at the event, which is put on by the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program.

Spezia said employers also need to look in the mirror and ask wonder: Maybe it’s us, not them?

Simply put, do manufacturers have the right people in charge?

“Sometimes, we’ve elevated technical experts into a management role, people who are very good at what they do — and are truly a subject matter expert — but lack the management tools to engage their team,” she said.

Spezia said management engagement is key to employee retention. Not only do managers need to have a personal relationship — “just asking one or two things about their day goes a long way” — but they need to make sure they have a professional relationship, one in which expectations and goals are clear.

And one in which milestones are rewarded.

Both Spezia and Hall said little things — pancake breakfasts, pizza parties, summer barbecues, gift cards — mean a lot.

The Costanza incentive

Every business is looking for ways to retain their employees. Greg Hall, mill manager at Rex Lumber Co., apparently has taken a page out of the George Constanza playbook, introducing an incentive that the legendary “Seinfeld” character talked about on the show.

Hall said the company doesn’t have the ability to pay two people in the same role a different wage, regardless of output.

“We have to find small, creative ways to reward those employees that are doing more,” he said. “I have a private bathroom on the facility. And giving them the key for a month if they hit a goal or do something out of the ordinary goes a long way.”

Farther than $500 would, Hall said.

“I kid you not, I think they still would be more excited about that bathroom.”

“All of us want to be part of something that matters — and want to feel like we’re part of that,” Hill said.

Both Spezia and Hall said training — both of their workers and managers — is key. They both pointed to programs run by the NJMEP as essential to success.

Spezia specifically noted MEP’s efforts in management training, but also in creating internships that help produce those hard-to-find employees.

“The amount of dexterity, the amount of skill that goes into making the dies we use is truly unparalleled,” she said. “We found the only solution of getting ahead of the aging of the workforce is to start strategically developing an apprenticeship program where we can bring in a younger generation — perhaps a student who is interested in working with their hands, has decent mathematical skills, doesn’t want to be sitting behind a computer in a high-rise building and is excited to really master a trade.”

MEP is helping Coining do what it couldn’t do on its own, Spezia said.

“I’m a single source point of accountability for human resources for about 100 employees,” she said. “So, frankly, I don’t have the time to create an apprenticeship program from the ground up. What better way than to leverage a local resource, where there’s already a program framework in place — then I can work with my points of contact to make sure that we hone in on the technical skill that we need.

“This way, I’m very involved in the process of bringing a candidate into our shop that really fits what we’re looking for.”

Hall said doing proper training plays into the strengths of the new generation.

“They are the most educated and most technically advanced workforce,” he said. “We should all be using that to our advantage.”