The start-up success of Hunt-Wesson's new Snack Pack pudding plant in Waterloo, IA, was due in large measure to Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo and the training it provided to the new plant's people. But the training was just a single element in a carefully orchestrated human resources program by Fullerton, CA-based Hunt-Wesson, partly in concert with Hawkeye and three other Iowa community colleges, that achieved the following objectives: * First, it identified the skill levels of employees in Waterloo to help the company make the decision to locate there; * Second, it helped to identify a pool of potential employee candidates; * Third, it tailored its benefits packages to attract the types of employees that Hunt-Wesson needed; * Fourth, the schools developed programs to help "train the trainers," Hunt-Wesson's core management and production people brought in from other plants; and * Fifth, it coordinated the training that not only attracted employees to the Hunt-Wesson jobs but also prepared them for the plant's very sophisticated production environment. Long before the site in Waterloo was selected and construction began, human resources executive Mark Nye made contact with Hawkeye to gain an understanding of the technical skill levels of employees in that city. "We knew going in that we were going to need people with strong technical skills," he says. "So we had to learn about the skill levels of employees in Waterloo and about the technical training programs available there." Nye contacted John Carney, who heads up a team that works with local employers to provide customized training. "We're actually a separate entity from Hawkeye, what has been called Manufacturing Technology Services. So we don't compete with the degree programs underway there. We've been so successful we now have our own separate facility called the Center for Business & Industry." Nye also contacted three other community colleges, all within about an hour's drive from the Waterloo plant. "Several of us, including the plant manager and plant engineer, went to the various campuses to visit with instructors so that we could tell them what kind of operation we were planning and what types of people we were looking for," says Nye. "In turn, they educated us about the focus of their programs, the curriculum, the types of students they regularly taught and the numbers of students and employees likely to be available to us." That information helped the company make the decision to locate in Waterloo and to start the process of building and equipping the plant. By title, Nye is manager of organization development, responsible for staffing the new plant, although he's now moved into an operations role at the plant. "It was my job to get the people side of the equation ready for this plant. A good labor force was one of the primary reasons we ended up locating the plant here," he reports. Very 'open' house With the location decision made, Nye and his core of management people began to look at recruiting. They had help from Hawkeye Community College, Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids, Northeast Iowa in Calmar and Northern Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. The company had also contacted another school in the Marshalltown area, but representatives never had the chance to visit there. At Hawkeye, Nye and Rick Tucker, the designated plant manager, arranged to hold a campus "open house" to give the company a chance to talk about its business, the new plant and what types of opportunities would be available there. At the conclusion of the presentations, Hunt-Wesson planned to pass out employment applications to those who might be interested. Early on, the company had decided that the complexity of the equipment at the automated Waterloo plant would require all production employees to have a minimum of a two-year associate's degree or the equivalent in military training. Although Tucker and company tried to circulate the word about this minimum requirement, they were less than completely successful. "Our open house at Hawkeye was a big surprise," Nye remembers. "Naturally, we didn't know how many people to expect, so we reserved the school's largest auditorium, just in case. We thought we might attract one hundred to two hundred people. That night, more than seven hundred people arrived, and we had to scramble to split the attendees into two groups, using another room at the school. We also had to split up our people so we could make the same presentations to the two groups." Good community relations Although the response was a big surprise, it wasn't long before conditions became more manageable. Many of the attendees were already employed and looking to move up to a better job. Once the company reiterated the need for either a two-year degree or equivalent military training, about half the attendees departed. Many were looking for more conventional production-line jobs, and many more fell short of meeting H-W's qualifications. Still, the company was contending with a larger-than-expected number of potential candidates, most of whom were already employed, Nye reports. "We knew we were going to have to make our openings very attractive in terms of the type of work we offered, the pay scale, the benefits, the working environment, the energy level-all of the factors that create conditions of employment. And we knew that training was a big part of making our jobs appealing, that H-W would be helping them learn new skills and technologies." So Tucker, Nye and other members of the H-W core group explained all those jobs' varied dimensions. "We emphasized the training component because we were actually right on campus," Nye says. "Some of the people knew the professors, they knew the facilities and the types of equipment the school used for training, because many had experienced Hawkeye training for other employers. Hawkeye is very active with employer support here in Waterloo." In the end, Nye says, more than 300 individuals filled out applications-all for 28 openings at the Waterloo plant. First, the company pared down applications to under 150 by analyzing the applications for experience and education. After personal interviews, the company made its selection of the new hires. Benefits 'menu' attractive Although H-W realized that it would need to offer compensation that was competitive in the Waterloo market, it worked hard to develop a complete package of benefits that would be attractive to the people it selected. In fact, its early estimate of hourly wages had to be increased by just 50¢/hr to obtain the individuals it sought. Thanks to Hunt-Wesson's understanding of the Waterloo area, Nye and Tucker decided to forgo Hunt-Wesson's traditional pension plan. Instead they offered a more flexible benefits package that's often used by its parent company, ConAgra. "We used ConAgra's more flexible benefits approach," Nye states. "Probably the stand-out feature is the 401(k) program that is combined with a local profit-sharing dimension. That really has the potential for some good earnings. "A lot of our plants join the Hunt-Wesson pension plan, but we felt we wanted to try a different approach," he adds. "The ConAgra people in Omaha helped us to design this package of benefits. In the end, we found that this was probably the primary attractor for new employees, along with having a new facility with all-new equipment. And, of course, the product is kind of fun, too. We're not making tractor parts here." Carney had some concerns about Hunt-Wesson finding all the skilled people it sought, especially in requiring the associate's degree. "Fortunately, its wage and benefits packages are such that it could attract from other companies in the area, along with individuals coming right out of training programs," Carney says about Hunt-Wesson. Skills testing Hunt-Wesson continued to use its resources as a major unit of ConAgra. Some of its plants had developed skills tests to help measure applicants' knowledge levels in a variety of technical areas, from math to blueprint reading. The use of the tests wasn't to qualify candidates against each other; rather, the goal was a more general measure of the skills of the entire group. This information was used by Hawkeye to understand at what levels it should begin its training program. "These knowledge tests do a pretty good job of measuring individuals' technical aptitude. So these results gave us a sense of how smart these people were, how much they really understood some of the technical disciplines," Nye says. "It wasn't a 'go/no-go' sort of tool for evaluating individuals. Rather, we were seeking general measurements of the knowledge of the entire group. We passed this on to Hawkeye to help create their training programs." The test was modeled on a test created for one of Hunt-Wesson's Swiss Miss production facilities. After the test was modified for the Waterloo facility, it provided benchmarks for knowledge levels in math, electronics, mechanical, pneumatics/hydraulics, blueprint reading and food preparation areas, all subjects that became part of Hawkeye's training. According to the school, the test results were helpful, but not perfect. The school and the plant will probably further modify the test before the next round of hiring. Most of the new hires had the two-year associate's degree, although several qualified with specific training provided by the military services. "That technical training in the military equated to associates' degrees in our minds," Nye notes. When the plant began operations in August, virtually all employees had either the associate's degree or equivalent military technical training. The only exceptions were forklift drivers. Training trainers While the school was creating its curriculum for the new hires, it first presented a training program for Hunt-Wesson's core group of supervisors. "The school provided a three-day 'train the trainer' course for our management group of eight or nine, plus an administrative person who was helping us put together a lot of our in-house training materials," Nye explains. "In this course, we received instruction in manual writing and in making personal presentations, including some software training for presentations. In all, the school did a great job of preparing all of us." So good, in fact, that the company felt it didn't need to hire a training consultant to help create the in-plant training programs. The management group came from many of Hunt-Wesson's other facilities in the food business, some from Orville Redenbacher, some from Swiss Miss and some from other Snack Pack pudding plants. "These people brought their experience from other facilities and the training approaches used at these other plants. In the end, we felt that our multi-plant experience, along with Hawkeye's help, meant we didn't need to use a professional training vendor to set up our programs," says Nye. "We talked to several of them, because we did explore it as an alternative. But we felt we had sufficient in-house expertise." After its management team received its presentation training, the new hires were brought in for orientation and safety training conducted by plant management. Once completed, all the new hires were sent to Hawkeye for an intensive three weeks of technical training. Instead of extensively training each new employee in his or her assigned tasks, Hunt-Wesson took a different tack with Hawkeye's training: It sought to train all 28 new hires in all areas to bring the overall level of knowledge up to a common denominator. In fact, this training was performed before the plant and the new employees were even assigned to specific work areas. Leveling the experience "The goal was for them to deliver the entire group of twenty-eight employees, all trained to a single, common level of knowledge," Nye says. "Naturally, some training modules would be elementary for certain individuals, while others were really being stretched into areas new to them. We found this to be a good investment. When the three weeks of eight- to ten-hour days were completed, all of our new employees had received essentially the same training." Following this, the management people did some additional training on the plant's computer system and the MP2 preventive maintenance and parts control software. "Because we're so systems-oriented here, everyone in the plant interacts with our software," Nye explains. At this point, the plant was still being finished and some equipment was being installed. When the Hawkeye training was winding down, the new hires began to spend one day per week at the plant and four days at the school. "This way," Nye says, "they could help with some of the commissioning activities, and really get their hands on the equipment. It helped them with their Hawkeye training, too. They could understand what the instructors were talking about when they discussed pumps or other components." Process training for all When the training at Hawkeye was completed, the new employees spent a couple of weeks at the plant, learning the specifics of the process of converting ingredients into packaged pudding and everything that happens in between. "We didn't want employees to work in packaging who didn't have a clue about the rest of the process. This instruction was handled by our production leaders, all of whom had gone through the 'train the trainer' course," Nye reports. At the end of this period, the management polled the group about their preferences for the plant jobs, and tried to accommodate their individual choices. "We began to assign individuals to functional groups, packaging being one of them. Each group then had an additional four to five weeks of hands-on instruction on the specific equipment in their area. Eventually," Nye continues, "we engaged the equipment manufacturers to come in to provide additional instruction on the various machines. Even at this time, some of the equipment was still being installed." The amount of training by vendors varied by section within the plant. Packaging probably required the longest training, Nye says, because there are so many different machines involved. This vendor training covered about five weeks in the packaging area. At this stage, the plant had yet to start production, although some equipment trials were underway. But in just a few weeks, starting in August, production did begin. "Our start-up so far has worked much better than we had hoped for," Nye says with obvious satisfaction. "Of course, we're still looking at preliminary numbers. But we're really 'blowing the doors off' the start-up curve, so we're feeling pretty good. "We're convinced that we handled our staffing and training right, and we're real pleased with the caliber of people we have and the overall training program. We're very proud of these people. And other Hunt-Wesson plants will probably follow and use our process in the future."