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Building a Winning Team

Metalcasters can improve employee retention by emphasizing a mutual investment between management and the workforce

Nicholas Leider, Associate Editor

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The old cliché says you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. But that’s not the case when it comes to many human resources departments in manufacturing and, more specifically, metalcasting. The demand for workers to fill jobs has been a real concern for the industry in the last decade. Many metalcasting facilities, in response to a relatively shallow labor pool, have emphasized programs and initiatives to boost retention of current employees to limit turnover and increase experience.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American manufacturing hit its low of 11.45 million jobs in early 2010. In the six years since, nearly a million jobs have been created. Metalcasting in particular has seen an increase in reshoring efforts, with a majority of these jobs returning from China, according to the non-profit Reshoring Initiative.

Still, while positions may be available with metalcasters looking to hire individuals, the industry is challenged with not only finding capable employees, but retaining them for an extended period of time.

 “I believe that there is a shortage,” said Ken Kurek, president and CEO, Waukesha Foundry Inc., Waukesha, Wisconsin. “This is especially bad in highly skilled positions such as patternmakers, maintenance mechanics and welders, as well as technical positions such as engineers and metallurgists.”

Working on Retention

Metalcasters require specific skill sets for many positions on the shop floor. The candidate and available position have to be an appropriate match for it to last. In a basic sense, it’s about not placing a round peg in a square hole.

“We need to be sure to attract potential employees who have the right attitude and aptitude to be successful in those positions,” Kurek said.

But employee retention can be much more complex than matching an available position with a qualified candidate. Every employer, metalcasting facilities included, can maintain an acceptable level of employee retention by actively engaging its workforce.

“We really try to show employees that there are career paths available,” said Mary Jo Eayrs, human resources manager, Brillion Iron Works, Brillion, Wisconsin. “We want workers to talk to us about advancing within the company. We want to encourage growth from within.”

In addition to professional improvement, metalcasters can display commitment to employees by emphasizing safety procedures and improving working conditions, such as lighting and cleanliness. Employers can ensure safety at their metalcasting facilities by strictly enforcing the proper use of personal protection equipment and offering employees comprehensive safety training.

In addition, supervisors should make all shop floor employees aware of any possible methods of advancement, including training and education. Such development can lead to increased wages.

“We constantly reassess the compensation and benefits in order to stay competitive with other companies within the industry,” Kurek said.

Employees who see engagement from supervisors and managers are likelier to remain motivated.

“We have created career paths within our metalcasting facility so that young employees can see how their career can grow as they add new skills,” Kurek said.

Supervisors make a difference because they represent the metalcasting facility to the employees, and the management must be consistently making decisions based on the mutual good of both employees and the ownership.

An Approach of Mutual Investment

Brillion Iron Works depends on its apprenticeship program to fill many skilled positions throughout the casting operation. With apprentices in maintenance, electrical, patternmaking and machining departments, the metalcaster uses this approach as a way to establish relationships with skilled employees that can continue after graduation.

“It’s not just becoming a tradesman,” said Reed Ott, plant manager, Brillion. “It’s what the person can do in relation to operations, to improving quality, to bring new ideas. We want them to buy into the place they work.”

The program usually takes four or five years to complete, with each participant juggling onsite training alongside journeymen in addition to educational instruction from a local technical college. Apprentices typically spend 40-plus hours in the metalcasting facility, in addition to a full day of classes every other week.

“After graduation, I would ideally like them to stay forever,” Ott said. “We want to build lasting relationships with individuals who want to be here. For us, we need to make every attempt to get our employees the training they need.”

Apprentices are accepted after testing and interviews. Vacancies in the program depend on needs within the workforce. As many as a dozen apprentices may be in the program, spread across the various departments.

Brillion evaluates the ongoing training of the apprentices by routinely examining work history. For example, if a maintenance apprentice has spent a majority of time on reactive maintenance, he will be steered toward downtime maintenance. The goal is well-rounded, capable employees who are familiar with a wide range of operations.

“We know we will lose people along the way, but that’s unavoidable,” Ott said. “The job of management is to make our employees want to stay. We want it to be easy to commit to Brillion long-term, because we’re committed to them.”

Broadening Experience

Much like Brillion’s attempts to diversify its apprentices’ work experiences, MetalTek International, Waukesha, Wisconsin, rotates its engineering interns across various areas of the facility in order to best match the individual with the position. The three-year program involves rotating newly hired engineers through various operations in MetalTek’s facilities, including casting processes, machining, fabrication and testing.

“We want to give them a broad exposure to the business and related responsibilities,” said E.J. Kubick, executive vice president, MetalTek. “We find that the various rotations helps build a technical foundation. Engineers can learn how the entire operation works, while identifying where they would like to focus.”

While in rotations, engineers can apply to open positions as they come up. As a result, MetalTek typically fills vacancies with engineering talent already familiar with the company.

“We rarely are out in the market looking to fulfill an engineering position,” Kubick said. “We are familiar with the individuals and what they can do, so it’s a great way to ensure we’re filling positions with quality people.”

The relationship between the engineer and MetalTek is one that can evolve during the program’s duration, so the employee can find the most appropriate role, benefitting both parties in the long run.

“We are relatively open to people in different disciplines,” Kubick said. “We look for experience in materials and metallurgy but we also consider mechanical engineers and engineering sales backgrounds.”

Having more than 15 engineers in the three-year rotational program, MetalTek uses it to continually stock the company with talented people working in a field that’s appealing. Though employees will continue to leave every metalcasting operation, these programs represent steps forward in keeping acquired talent.

“It’s a 50-50 shot. You have to invest in them and they have to invest in you,” Ott said. “If you don’t offer the necessary opportunities to your important employees, they’ll find it on the outside. But if you do, you’ll make it easy for them to stay.” 

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