A REAL DISCONNECT seems to exist between the grim stats that rolled out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics offices this month and what many distributors are experiencing.
According to a report titled “The Unemployment Situation: February 2003” produced by BLS, the United States lost 308,000 jobs in February, (seasonally adjusted). Payrolls were trimmed by 41,000 jobs last month in just the transportation industry and public utilities. Of those transportation-related jobs that disappeared in February, 17,000 were in the trucking industry.
These figures should indicate that more people are out there in the job market now, trained people who are looking for a place to apply their skills. But if that really is the case, these potential employees don't seem to be noticing the “Help Wanted” signs that continue to be displayed at truck equipment shops.
We had the opportunity to moderate a session on employee recruiting and retention at NTEA's recent convention in Atlanta. No hour-long speeches. No PowerPoint presentations. The session was simply a gathering of truck equipment industry folks who talked about some of their concerns and shared helpful ways of addressing them.
Two main ideas seemed to be on the mind of those who attended:
- Attracting qualified shop technicians continues to be difficult. Not many people have experience installing truck bodies and equipment effectively. In addition, the number of people in Generation X (the primary age group for shop technicians) is 40% fewer than those in the Baby Boom generation.
Distributors must grow their own technicians. Vocational schools are fine for teaching students to weld, but today's sophisticated trucks and equipment, those attending the workshop agreed, require a specialized education that has to come from distributors and their suppliers.
So where can a distributor turn to attract candidates, and how can these new hires be retained?
The workshop turned up a couple of creative ideas for attracting future employees, including:
- Look at your present employees
Make sure they know about any new job openings so that they either can apply for the position themselves or let a friend know about the opening. Wilcox Bodies Ltd provided details on a recruitment incentive system in which the company pays employees a bonus for recommending someone whom the company hires and keeps on the payroll for a year. The program has provided the company with valuable employees and is especially popular with those who receive the bonus.
- Go directly to jail. Collect good employees
For more than seven years, Kranz Automotive Body has hired an average of two ex-offenders per year to work in its shop — some who have completed their prison terms, others who are still in halfway houses.
The company does not hire violent criminals or sex offenders, but it does provide second chances to those who have paid their dues and are trying to earn their way back into the free world.
“These guys are more appreciative than anyone else,” says Gene Kohler, president. “They have made major mistakes and are eager to turn their lives around. The jobs we provide give them a new sense of value and self worth. Not all of those we hire work out. They don't all last, but most have served us well. We just lost one who had been with us for almost eight years. In today's market, I will take a couple of years of good service in a heartbeat.”
In regard to employee retention, Crest Truck Equipment has found that employees last longer when their first days on the job are positive. To make that happen, the company operates a mentoring program that enables new hires to become acclimated easily.
“It's like you felt the first day of school,” says Norm Ziegler, president. “You would have appreciated having someone come along beside you to help you adjust. Our mentoring program does just that.”
Two of the company's most experienced employees serve as mentors. One works in the Crest Truck Equipment headquarters facility in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania. The other helps mentor new employees at the company's branch locations.
“Our mentoring program basically acts on the premise that beginning work in a new environment can be made easier by ‘personal contact’ that goes beyond just being managed on the actual work that you do,” Ziegler says. “The mentor helps the new employee settle in and become acclimated to the new work environment. We feel that if extra time is spent in the beginning, the employee will feel more accepted, have higher morale, and be more likely to become a long-term employee.”
Truck equipment has always been a “people” business. Developing and retaining top-notch employees will remain a top-level priority. Our thanks to those NTEA members who shared creative ideas for making their companies more desirable places to work.