Utah manufacturers consider their employees among their most valuable assets and discussed the practice of stealing workers from each other at a recent meeting of the Utah Manufacturers Association in Salt Lake City.
Utah manufacturers consider their employees among their most valuable assets and discussed the practice of stealing workers from each other at a recent meeting of the Utah Manufacturers Association in Salt Lake City.

The Enterprise

Like in hunting, the idea of poaching is just as distasteful in manufacturing.

Issues related to pilfering employees from another company were among topics discussed by some manufacturing executives recently in Salt Lake City, and all said they’d love to eliminate the practice. The discussion was prompted during a panel’s Q&A session when an audience member asked about smaller companies grabbing workers from larger ones.

“If we just spend our time poaching from one another, or if big guys poach from the little guys, we’re not going to get anywhere in the area and all manufacturing is going to suffer … so that doesn’t work,” Larry Coughlin, general manager for Boeing Salt Lake, said at the third annual Manufacturing Summit, a Utah Manufacturers Association Event.

Coughlin said he and other peer company rep have been working with state government on developing a strong pipeline of workers for the industry, including better curricula in high school and middle school to get children interested in careers in the industry and influencing their parents to understand that manufacturing “actually is a pretty good way to have a career and have a sustainable living for your family.”

“That’s what we’ve been focusing on to really develop that whole pipeline of people so that we don’t have to do the churn between each other,” he said. “It’s really important to get that set up, and I think for the long-term view, that’s what you really have to do. Sure, there will be some short-term back-and-forth, right? But that’s not the long-term solution that anyone’s interested in.”

Susan Johnson, president of Futura Industries, listed several ways her company is trying to retain its employees. They include starting an onsite medical clinic, having inexpensive healthcare premiums, instituting weekly training, paying for employee spouses and children to attend college and employing workers’ teenage children during summers.

“And that’s done tremendous things for us,” she said of the teen summer work. “Rather than thinking of all the reasons we can’t do that, we thought, ‘Why not do that?’”

Johnson said Futura believes in nepotism — “to the max” — and rewards employees who bring in family members who work and stay at the company.

“What we’ve found is, people are very proud to work there, [and] they’re not going to bring a family member that doesn’t represent them well. That’s worked quite well for us,” she said.

She acknowledged that Futura loses employees from time to time — those poached by another company or who left to seek more money — “and they come right back, saying, ‘I had no idea.’

“It’s important to focus on retaining your people and it doesn’t matter how small you are. Someone who feels that they’re critical to the missions’ execution and that they have a home there, really has no reason to leave.”

John Dudash, president and chief executive officer of MityLite, said his company has created a scholarship program as a way of investing in employees’ skills enhancement.

“The more you invest in your people, clearly, the more loyalty you’ll get from them and the more quality performance you’ll get, and then it’s up to leadership to perpetuate that,” he said. “You’ll always have a problem with skilled workers … but the short answer is ‘development,’ no doubt about it.”

Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, said a UMA long-term project is its “Made In Utah” campaign, which has the catch line “What Utah makes, makes Utah.” He said the public needs to understand that manufacturing is 20 percent of the overall economy and that everything “from doughnuts to diapers to rockets to climbing gear to medical devices to food” are the result of manufacturing.

“Sometimes today’s generation doesn’t understand that all those things have to be made before you can purchase them,” he said. Children and their parents need to understand that “the products they like to use have to be made first and that it’s a great industry for them to work in. That sounds like a monumental task, and it is a little bit, but we’re working on that.”

Another audience question focused on what academia can do to help manufacturing companies. Bingham said it comes down to four words: “Critical thinker/problem solver.”

“For years and years and years, we’ve focused so much on curriculum that sometimes I think we get lost in that part of, how do we help these students become that critical thinker, see a problem and figure out what it is.”

One UMA program features seventh- and eighth-grade students looking at a consumer product, understanding why it works and considering ways to improve it. Along the way, they apply math, science and technology, he said.

“The funny part is, generally in seventh and eighth grade, they don’t even realize they use those. And they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. Now, all of the sudden I’m using those qualities, those things that I learned in sixth grade that I thought were horrible, or seventh or eighth,’” he said.

Other panelists suggested that young people could benefit from not just learning practical skills but also teamwork and improved communication skills.

“Communicating and working interdependently,” Johnson said, “because it doesn’t matter how robust of an individual contribution skills you bring to a business. If you can’t work in an interdependent manner, you usually don’t get the outputs that you need.”

Dudash stressed that the industry needs to work symbiotically with academia to “create an environment where we produce what we need” rather than poaching employees. Scholarships and specific program could meet general or specific needs, he added.

“We do have this challenge of finding skilled workers. We do have — in a very, very strong economy — the challenge and threat of poaching from one another, [and] some sort of directed, collaborative initiative between academia and business makes a heck of a lot of sense.”

“I think we’ve seen a lot of tremendous strides in that over the last couple of years,” Bingham replied. “I’ve had more visits with academia and industry over the last number of years than we’ve had historically. … The more we collaboratively work together, the better we can figure out specifically how to bring those kids out of school and get them directly into the workplace. I think we’re making strides there.”

Read more: The Enterprise - Manufacturers lament poaching 

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