In the not too distant past, before computers, before the internet was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, warehouses used to be nothing more than a dumping ground for bodies, into a labor-intensive environment as brawn was more important than a brain. That’s right folks, a company would take their misfits, malcontents and ne’er-do-wells and place them right into the warehouse grind and for some, it was a “last chance” to demonstrate to the company they could still be a productive employee. If they couldn’t redeem themselves here, they weren’t worth saving and were terminated. That’s how it was as the warehouse was also one of the last bastions for men since a warehouse was a manly place and only real men worked there, horsing around like teens, playing pranks on each other, playing card games or dominos in the locker room full of calendars and posters with scantily clad women. It was a time when smoking was good and a hard drink was necessary at the start and end of each workday. Remember, seat belts didn’t exist in cars, you didn’t have to be politically correct, ethnic jokes were SOP and to be successful in a warehouse you only needed a strong back and a quick right cross since you checked your brain in at the door. As a manager once told me at the very beginning of my young warehouse career, “I didn’t hire you to think.” As long as the company made money all was right with the world and that’s how things operated for years, mindless zombies doing as they were told, losing limbs, losing lives, endless hours on their feet, no PPE of any kind, and your only recourse was to go with the flow and be assimilated or quit.
Then the winds of change slowly gained momentum as the baby boomers were coming of age and new consciousness arose across the land as people asked why? It was like the great renaissance all over again as we were whisked out of the dark ages. Why do we treat some people differently? Why do we do things this way if workers keep getting hurt? Just for asking these simple questions people were beaten and called horrible names and were cast out as blasphemers and told: “because that is the way we’ve always done it.” However, there were too many voices asking these questions at the same time. Soon civil rights and then women’s rights were issues of the day as this new awareness of fellow human beings and how they were being treated emerged. Then workers rights were soon to follow and in 1971 OSHA was born and the modern SAFETY era began. Forklifts were getting smaller but with more power and greater maneuverability with a wider selection of capabilities. Then came one of the biggest evolutions in the warehouse, the desktop computer, (MITS-1974/Tandy-1977). Things could now be tracked, information stored and then printed on paper. Expenses, inventory, transactions could be found in one area. Oh My!
As these technological changes continued to modify the face of the workplace, the other significant change that occurred was who we had working in the warehouse. Brawn was no longer a vital requirement as we focused on recruiting people who could think for themselves with problem-solving and customer satisfaction skills while understanding that working safely was just as important as producing a quality product. We also wanted people who were flexible, handle multiple jobs and could adapt to change quickly while making abrupt adjustments on the fly without a drop in productivity and quality. We wanted people who could pick at the speed of light and beyond. Of course, this brought a whole new set of problems to the table. How do we find, train and retain these people to ensure continued growth and consistency of production? Let’s face it, folks, a leader knows the biggest asset in their company is not the infrastructure, materials, or equipment, but the people. Yea, the ones hired and trusted to keep up the maintenance, move the materials and operate the equipment. The ones in the trenches daily, making the company look good while making decisions to keep customers happy, thanks to the trust and backing to do so.
What are the best ways to find and retain these people? When you begin the task of recruiting and hiring remember what Darwin said and I’m paraphrasing here, “selection is everything”. Work closely with your HR department or recruiter and give them every detail about the job to be performed and all associated functions including any and all equipment that will need to be operated and what kind(s) of PPE will be required as well. The more information you give them the better the selection process and once this is all assembled there are lots of places to search for talent. Your local unemployment office, college campuses, and job fairs are all good locales but as you search don’t overlook one important resource, women. Why not? During World War II between 12 – 20 million women were working in the defense industry and brought us the image of “Rosie the Riveter – WE can do it.” and with their help we did. In fact, there is a new organization, Women In Manufacturing, a great resource for those who are entering this realm. There are so many perks you can offer to attract female employees like on-site childcare, flexible hours and equal pay. It is about time that women workers are treated as equals.
After all the effort on recruiting and hiring, you want to start new workers off on the right foot and lay down a firm foundation with a well-developed orientation and training for new employees. This is crucial for their and your success and I can’t stress enough how important this is. I’ve worked for some large companies where their training of new staff began and ended with one sentence, here’s your workstation. You want staff to begin producing as soon as possible, in a safe manner with confidence and not wondering what’s expected of them. The culture of training and safety also encourages workers to stay since you’ve demonstrated you care about their success as employees. There are many ways to put together your orientation and you can read how Michelin handles this, “Workforce: Successful Employees Require a Solid Start.” I would say to make sure you cover all aspics in the facility, especially safety, forklifts, and other power equipment, security and emergency procedures, the location of supervisor and manager and then set up some time with their new workmates to chat at lunch or tour around the facility.
Retention of these well trained and talented workers isn’t difficult. Unlike during the DotCom boom, espresso machines and game rooms aren’t as important today as job satisfaction and how they are treated. Listen to your workforce, be accessible and the best way to do that is to be out on the floor. The best and fastest way to turn off an employee is to NOT LISTEN. Put yourself in their place and remember just because it’s a pebble to you, doesn’t mean it’s not a boulder to them so take concerns seriously, acknowledge their issue and make sure to report back to them any new details and dates until resolved. You’d be surprised at some of the great suggestions on equipment operation or maintenance employees make that save time and money. If a worker ever complains about a safety issue don’t you dare blow them off! Take those with extreme concern and resolve immediately. You want to cultivate their interest in what goes on in the company so get employees involved in quality circles, continuous improvement projects, workplace safety committees, and maintenance of equipment. Have impromptu discussions right on the work floor, their office, on improving forklift skills, safety hazard awareness and let them be creative. Once a year I would split the staff into three groups, and sent them through the warehouse and office trying to identify safety hazards I had previously set up. The winning team got recognition and a choice of a free lunch or a free hour off.
Other ways to help retain employees is to offer in-house as well as pay for outside training programs where employees can further improve and develop their skills and talents to move up within the company. One company I worked for offered Spanish or English language in-house classes once a week during lunch to improve internal communication. You can also offer in-house classes on inventory control, warehouse terminology, computers, excel spreadsheets and more. A good employee should be able to work at least one level below and one level up. Training could also help refresh their safety skills, to use a fire extinguisher, doing LOTO or how to properly escort a driver to the loading bay and please, get them involved as presenters as well. In addition, make sure you make every attempt to promote from within. If you have to keep bringing outsiders in for positions then you need to review your training program as employees will not stay.
Eventually, hopefully, sooner than later, our society will finally get to the point where it is realized that all people are the same, and they all bring great points of view to the table, you just have to want to tap that resource. You wouldn’t like being chewed out in the middle of a dock floor for everybody to witness, so why would you do it to them? Human beings are precious bundles that drop in for a short time, make their mark on the world, raise children to do and be better than themselves, love who you want, have a good laugh, watch the sunset and stop to smell the roses and live life to the fullest. When you have to “talk” to an employee do it with respect, in private and be a coach. The golden rule to help employee retention we all learned back in kindergarten, treat all people with respect.