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To Retain Young Workers, Change Workplace Norms

By SME Media Staff

This article is based on the Workforce Leadership Exchange at FABTECH 2019. It continues coverage that began with the Up Front column in ME, January 2020, page 6, and continued with “Workforce Pipeline” on pages 102-103 of the April issue and “Workforce Pipeline” on pages 86-87 of the October issue. Coverage concludes with this article.

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Kord Kozma

The moderator of the Leadership Exchange was Kord Kozma, global director of human resources, Nidec Press & Automation. The panelists were Hernán Luis y Prado, founder and CEO, Workshops for Warriors, which trains veterans for manufacturing jobs; Dean Steadman, CNC education program manager, FANUC America; and Robert Tessier, national director of advanced fabrication technologies, Airgas.

Kozma: There are some key themes in developing the workforce. One is that career paths are important. Related to that, folks want to grow in job responsibilities. You have to set expectations for both the business and for your employees, wherever they are on the chronological chain. Also, workforce norms are very important. When people enter the business, there are behavioral norms we want them to live up to. And that often comes up in the framework of older workers coaching or leading younger workers. But here’s how disconnects can happen. We tell younger workers, ‘we’re going to do all these great things. We’re going to coach you. You’re going to have this opportunity.’ And when we don’t follow through on these promises, they are profoundly disappointed. Because they believe us, unlike folks who, at least in my generation, are more cynical about these kinds of promises. The thing about younger folks is that they actually believe us. And they expect us to do the stuff we tell them we’re going to do. So we’ve got to follow through and [do] what we tell them about what their career path is, and how they’re going to succeed. To the panel, what do you see in businesses that have done well leading across generations?

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Rob Tessier

Tessier: One key thing is to explain to people ‘why.’ It seems so simple, but if you ask people to do something and there’s no explanation, it doesn’t make sense to them. Just sit down for a moment and explain ‘this is what’s happening, this is why we have to do it, and this is the outcome that we’re looking for.’ The ‘why’ typically helps people get over that bridge. You always have new people coming into the business or into your industry. Don’t expect them to understand everything that’s going on without an explanation. This ultimately can help in the evolution of your business. It can help people think of new alternatives to old ways of doing things. This is where some knowledge transfer can happen. You also have to have an open mind. The most dangerous statement ever made is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ At Airgas, we train people, and we have a robust apprentice program. And people ask me on a regular basis, ‘what happens if they leave?’ There’s a more important question. What happens if you don’t train people and they stay? We’re going to train people, and, yes, some people will leave. But the larger question is what are we doing for the industry, and how will we transfer knowledge?

Steadman: I totally agree. In addition to keeping an open mind, companies need to establish some type of framework of what the goals are, where the career paths are, and tell new employees how things are done. But then, more importantly, you need to follow up and ask them what they think about it. Because if we keep doing the things the way we’ve always done them, there is no evolution. We have a generation coming into the workforce now who maybe will stick around for a couple years and then leave. I don’t know if we’re going to have employees that serve 30-40 years in companies anymore. I think that’s finished. You can’t treat these younger people like robots. This isn’t early 1900s production in Henry Ford-style factories.

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Dean Steadman

These people are going to be dynamic. The companies we work in are dynamic. Use these younger people who have grown up with the Internet, with iPads. They’ve grown up being able to find answers to questions instantaneously. They’ve grown up with instant gratification. Of course that presents some challenges, but I think the simple framework is, ‘we expect you to show up for work. We expect you to do your job. We are open to listening to what you have to say, and want you to find new, creative ways of doing things as well. We may show you how we do things now, but tell us what you think about that.’ If employers are open to that, then they’re going to succeed. Use these people to be creative, and then just exploit the technology that’s available to them to actually get the job done. We need to embrace everyone and value everyone’s input. If they’re made of the right stuff, people will want to grow. And we need to change the workplace itself. At a lot of tech companies like Facebook and Google, people are pretty casual. They don’t wear ties to work. They go on flex-time. We need to embrace that. Forget the class distinctions and just embrace everyone. We’re all working together.

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Hernan Luis y Prado

Luis y Prado: One of the challenges I’ve seen is the staggering lack of leadership today. [It’s very common for one generation to think they are better than the next generation.] I think we can all remember our grandparents saying, “these kids today.” [We have to move past that.] Our challenge is to become better leaders. Train your people to become better leaders. Young workers are starving for discipline, for rigor, for leadership. And that’s something you can provide. Reach out to veterans. They have that discipline in spades. Get those people and train them. They can help our nation out. Reach out to people that can help. I’m happy to say that I don’t have any issue at all with kids and millennials. The average age of the student in the Workshops for Warriors program is 24. They are locked on and ready to go. They already have leadership skills. They already have communication skills. We’re giving them the same kind of compressed training that the military provides, but in advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, welding, machining, and metrology. These are people that can rebuild America’s workforce one veteran at a time. Veterans who are millennials have gone through the rigor of Department of Defense training and discipline. Look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m willing to invest in you; will you invest in our company?’ We need to be an America worth fighting for. When those veterans come to your workplace, and you’re willing to invest in them, they’ll say, ‘I’m happy I went overseas. I’m happy I fought for you.’

What we need to do is offer this generation an opportunity to leapfrog several evolutionary steps of manufacturing to truly get to advanced manufacturing. We have to provide technology access to a broader group of people that are trained and cross-trained. We need to allow our next generation of Americans to usher in a new spirit of innovation without any type of stigma, without labels, and just focus on a brighter future for our nation.

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