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Employee retention through TLC

Want to keep packaging professionals from seeking opportunities elsewhere? Demonstrate clearly how much you want them in your 'career tent.'
Director of packaging technology Bruce Cohen of Glaxo Wellcome subscribes to the theory that when valued packaging talent leaveEmployee retention through TLC

Last month in "The Staffing Struggle" our special report on attracting and retaining talented packaging people in a tight labor market we described a retention strategy that a number of companies have come to rely on: Keep the work so interesting and rewarding that the grass can't possibly look any greener on the other side of the fence (see Packaging World October '98 p. 116). This month we look at another tactic our sources tell us they've used successfully. For lack of a better phrase it might be called the Tender Loving Care tactic. In other words demonstrate to employees that you have their career interests in mind and communicate clearly at all times if you expect them to stick around. And don't wait to begin doing it either. "Here retention starts right with the offer letter in terms of communication with and commitment to the new hire" says Janice Rooney director of human resources and financial services at Torpharm a Toronto-based pharmaceuticals company. "We believe in defining peoples' roles from the bottom of the company to the top so that everybody has clear direction. The process continues right through orientation where we spend a lot of time with new employees familiarizing them with processes in place here with their own particular job with safety initiatives GMPs and so on." Torpharm's emphasis on communication is reflected in its approach to performance reviews. Like most companies these come annually. But they're supplemented by "interim reviews" that take place quarterly. As David Mackay Torpharm's manager of packaging machinery installation and maintenance puts it "We believe in lots of feedback mechanisms." Understanding the business Communication also plays an important role at Dean Foods the food and dairy marketer based in Franklin Park IL. "We give the incoming packaging engineers a clear understanding of the entire business entity instead of keeping them in a little box where they design something but have no idea where it goes" says Dean's Carl Eitin director of packaging materials handling and facilities. "We share cost information customer base information and the impact of the design on the customer. People feel much more comfortable knowing these things." At Stoneyfield Dairy in Londonderry NH where rapid growth has made employee retention more critical than ever the emphasis on communication is aimed at getting people to understand not just their own function but what it takes to run the business itself. "Each month we track all the expenses that can be readily controlled-utilities waste overtime and so on-and we have an incentive program based on how well we controlled them" says vice president of operations John Daigle. "It helps everyone understand the cost of doing business. It gets right down to the profit-and-loss statement. It's kind of an open books concept." Management at Dr. McDougall's Right Foods marketer of nutritious foods in South San Francisco CA takes a similar approach says part-owner Jim Ahrens. "At weekly meetings our packaging people get in on sales strategy and new product development for example" says Ahrens. "It helps them feel they're not just pushing buttons out there but helping to make the whole thing happen." What's our role? Fostering this sense of participation through communication is also a retention strategy employed by Philadelphia-based pharmaceutical giant SmithKline Beecham. "I think it's very important to communicate what's going on at the company and how it could affect what we're doing [in packaging]" says Anthony Scolieri director of packaging and production technical services at SmithKline. "Is it a strategy dictated by long-range planning? Is it part of an outsourcing strategy? Most important what is our role in it? "I also try to get [my people] to mingle with my superiors from time to time" says Scolieri. "In a presentation to a vice president for example I might have my entire department not me handle it. And then we all go out to dinner on him. It's that kind of interaction that I think is important. The people in the group feel good because they're interfacing with high-level people." Scolieri also thinks it's important to communicate to the people in the packaging department that they are not without support. "I tell my people 'I expect first-class work and I'm going to give you first-class support. If you don't see it coming I want you to let me know about it.' We're careful too about people overextending themselves. If as manager I see that happening I owe it to that person and to the group to say 'Hey we need additional people here and this is why.' If people hear that and they sense it's supported by top management that's where there's really proof in the pudding." As morale-building as these kinds of internal communications strategies are it's also important that packaging professionals effectively communicate with the outside world too says Mary Ellen Reis director of packaging at Triarc Beverage Group the White Plains NY owner of the well-known Snapple brand. "One of the biggest things I do with my folks is I empower them to learn as much as they can by sending them out to seminars and by bringing suppliers in here to have them talk to us" says Reis. This establishes a constant flow of information between Triarc and its vendors says Reis. But it doesn't stop there. Triarc pakaging people also reach out to new vendors and new technologies to ensure they are up on the latest innovations. As Reis puts it "One of the best ways I've found to keep my folks motivated is to keep them up-to-date." Providing access to training and development opportunities is a clear signal that a company has an interest in helping employees be as the Army likes to put it all that they can be. As such training becomes a potent force of retention as more than one firm we interviewed reminded us. No set formula "We don't necessarily have a formula for retaining employees" says David Tressler plant manager of pasta producer Dakota Growers in Carrington ND. "But our goal is to train people from within so that their feeling of growth in their work helps keep them here. We're able to offer people who start at a lower position some advancement by training them on different equipment or processes in the packaging area. We've started a lot of people at a utility-type of position and as they gained experience in the packaging area we've been able to train them on the machinery which in turn allows them to advance." Stoneyfield Dairy's Daigle describes a similar situation at his firm. "On the packaging end our strategy for growth is to get more throughput via more sophisticated technology" says Daigle. He refers not only to the sheer size and capacity of new equipment "but also the onboard electronics and PLCs and other new components. We need packaging machine operators who really understand the machines who do more than just load them with fresh materials. With such sophistication has come training and development of our people to help them succeed in this new environment. Ultimately it becomes a means of retaining good people because it offers them opportunities for growth and learning." At Dean Foods incoming packaging engineers undergo a two-year training program. "We house them at one plant and they go through all aspects of production and engineering" says Gary Flickinger vice president of production and engineering at Dean. "We also give them business training and 'soft skills' training. It brings them into the organization in a business-like manner." "Coming into Dean's from college" says Dean's Eitin "new packaging engineers must tear down and rebuild blow-molding machines. They must understand not only what a bottle is and how you design it but also just how do you go about making one? They have to go out in a plant and operate and maintain a filling machine. Accounting and costing they work on too so they understand the financial impact of production- and packaging-related events." Underpinning the whole process is the idea that people must make their own decisions and stand up for them. "People feel good when you let them take responsibility" says Eitin. "That's how all of this relates to retention." Training and development If training opportunities are carefully thought out over the long haul they become clearly marked stepping-stones that allow an employee to move down a long and rewarding career path without having to change companies. It's a concept that Kraft Foods in Northfield IL understands perfectly. "We take employee development very seriously here and we invest a lot in internal training" says Marty O'Connor human resources officer at Kraft. "It's part of our normal annual evaluation process to put development plans in place for every single person in our organization not just those who are deemed high-potential people." O'Connor stresses that "development" means more than supporting people who are working toward advanced degrees or sending them out to training courses. "We also consider development to be the types of assignments they receive the types of businesses they work on. Everyone has a development plan that they and their managers jointly agree to at their annual reviews. We think it's important for people for their own professional growth." O'Connor is quick to point out that what's good for the individual is also very good for Kraft. "It's a key to making sure we create good depth in our organization both managerially and in specific technical areas like plastics for instance. As a company we think this approach is one of our strengths. It has a lot to do with our reputation as a company and with our ability to retain people. Because if we're able to satisfy people's desires to be developed they need not leave the company to obtain different experiences." Because of its size Kraft has another employee-retention strategy pretty much built in: It can offer its people a variety of locations and a number of businesses. "If we've got people here in the East who would prefer to move to the Midwest we have a wonderful opportunity to place them in Glenview Illinois; Madison Wisconsin; or Battle Creek Michigan" says O'Connor. "We also have opportunities to get people into different businesses where they not only learn new technologies in packaging but also have an opportunity to interact with other professionals in their field to expand their own personal networks and to become involved in businesses that display different dynamics. We work hard at making our professionals well-rounded in that respect and we put a lot of conscious effort into making those placements whether it's a technically oriented packaging developer or someone who aspires to be a section manager or an associate director in management." Every bit as committed to training and career path development as a means of retaining talented people in the packaging R&D department is Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble. Whether new hires come fresh from a college campus or have experience at another firm they're hired with the idea that they'll stay with P&G for an entire career. The 'career tent' "We take very seriously the concept of planning for one's career and personal development" says George Vernon director of packaging R&D at P&G. The company's Work and Development Program is based on the view that managing one's career doesn't cease when one is hired says Vernon. "So we have a very strong program to help people assess their own personal aptitudes and interest areas." In the packaging area specifically P&G has created a program called Packaging College. Consisting of 25 courses that usually take 21/2 years to complete the program goes into polymer fundamentals processing of polymeric materials plastic part and mold design blow molding film extrusion and more. "The name 'Packaging College' is appropriate" says Vernon "because I personally think people who make it through that college have the equivalent of a master's degree in the critical skills necessary to design and develop new-to-the-company-if not new-to-the-world-packages. That kind of technical training is very appealing. We find that engineers seem to have a real appetite for learning so if we can create an environment that has challenging projects and has both in-house and out-of-house technical training on an ongoing basis then we can meet a lot of those curiosity needs." Vernon also points out that when it comes to retaining people P&G like Kraft and other large firms has size as a significant ally. "We're a large multi-national company" says Vernon. "We offer people significant lateral moves into different parts of the company including international assignments. So if a person is interested in packaging we have some good fits. If they develop an interest in how to develop products with mechanical processes we have assignments like those. And of course we have assignments in all major geographic locations around the world. So when you come to P&G it's a pretty large tent and we try our best to make it a career tent. Not everybody will stay in the same place in the tent as when they joined the company but we really work hard to make this a career-oriented company and I'm gratified by the number of people we have who've made 30- and 35-year commitments to this company." As important as retention is sometimes a director of packaging like Glaxo Wellcome's Bruce Cohen has to acknowledge that the only way to "keep" top-notch packaging professionals is to "lose" them. Gaining by losing "I had one packaging engineer who's now a product manager in marketing" says Cohen. "Another is now project manager in R&D." Losing such talent is something Cohen can live with. The way he sees it if packaging engineers spend 10 years in one place they can get stuck. That typically leads the engineer to seek opportunities elsewhere. Cohen would rather find new opportunities for such packaging professionals thus keeping the talent in the company. "We're starting a program that will pick out high performers in packaging and give them cross-training in other areas before it's too late before they get stuck" says Cohen. "Sure I hate to see them leave the packaging department because it's hard to get good people. But if they stay within the company I don't really lose them. They bring knowledge from our department to another area and they become a direct link back to us. That gives us a better understanding of what's heading toward our department." The cross-training program Cohen describes couldn't succeed without support from top management. Some view such top-tier support as indispensible in the retention game. "Retention is a hot issue today because now you invest so much in your incoming hires" says Linda Spots college relations officer at Harrisburg PA-based AMP the world's largest maker of electronic connectors. "But retention needs to be embraced by executive management. They need to establish a turnover rate that's acceptable. Then you can implement programs." According to Bill Dando director of package development at Bass Brewers in Burton-on-Trent England keeping good packaging professionals in the long term is at least partly about building team spirit. His recommendation? "Make people believe there's no better place to work and encourage success in a way that another employer does not" says Dando. "We've got to value our people as specialists. That's clearly what they are within Bass and we've got to regard them in that light. We also aim to give them clear career progression and opportunities and if they want opportunities elsewhere within Bass my aim is to open those doors for them." SmithKline's Scolieri puts it this way. "Money is one thing. It gets us in the door and once a year when contract time comes around so to speak you want to get what you can financially. But it's the other things that keep people around and for me one of them is being a valuable member of an important team."

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