Class in Session
How to Train the Needle in the Haystack
By Dan Markham, Senior Editor
Finding the sharpest individual for the job is only half the battle. Employers must educate new hires on the many facets of the service center industry, and more, to turn potential into performance.
Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series on recruiting the next generation of employee in the service center industry. Part 1 on hiring was featured in MCN's May issue.
Finding quality people is a perpetual challenge for service centers, but the human resource task hardly ends when a new employee is brought on board. In fact, training new employees to become productive team members, and retaining those who become valuable contributors, is just as important to the long-term success of the business as hiring the right person in the first place.
"The challenge for service centers, the challenge for mills, is recruiting and developing and mentoring and training the next-generation workforce," says Bob Weidner, chairman of the Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Metals Service Center Institute. "This is not something to be done in the next six months, but an evolutionary process."
Putting a new hire in a position where he or she is most likely to find success is imperative. "We don't want to bring someone in and set them up for failure," says Linda McCue, vice president of human resources for Butler, Pa.-based Marmon/Keystone. That attitude places as much responsibility on the training staff as the new hire.
Marmon requires its department managers to put together a 25-point training outline for all new staff members. The comprehensive list covers everything the new employees need to accomplish and in what time frame. That program is presented to the employee, communicating the idea that "we're committed to your success as much as you should be," McCue says.
At Birmingham, Ala.-based O'Neal Steel, new office hires are placed in a rotation, moving from one department to another over the first 6-9 months of their employment. This gives them a broad-based understanding of the business, and allows the company to determine where they will fit best in the corporate structure. This process is followed at all of the O'Neal affiliates.
Some of the country's largest service centers have initiated expansive training programs to make sure all employees are attuned to what the company is trying to accomplish. Chicago's Ryerson Inc., for example, has completely overhauled its human resource practices in the last three years.
"When Mike Arnold become the company's CEO, one of the first things he wanted to know was ‘Where are my good people?'" recalls Roger Lindsay, chief human resources officer at Ryerson. "'Are they in Los Angeles or Edmonton?' And we had no way of knowing. Recruiting was a local activity."
That quickly changed. Ryerson embarked on a Talent Management Process, the company's way of ensuring that every hire had a clear set of objectives that could be used to measure their progress.
From there, the company established the Ryerson Academy, a dedicated training program it hosts in Minneapolis. Every six months, Ryerson selects 25 new hires and sends them to the Twin Cities for a thorough training session covering the company, its values and the skills each employee will need. Graduates of the program are then rotated out into the company's branches.
"With the way our industry is changing, we've got to have smart people, we've got to get them well-trained, and we've got to take that on ourselves," says Lindsay.
Chicago Tube & Iron Co., Romeoville, Ill., takes a similar approach. Company employees attend on-site educational sessions monthly, with classes taught by both CTI personnel and outside professionals. Since CTI is "run by a professor," each class concludes with an examination. The tests are not given to rank employees, but to judge the efficacy of each module, says company President Don McNeeley, who also teaches at Northwestern University.
Beyond its internal offerings, CTI provides considerable incentive for its personnel to pursue advanced educational opportunities--whether it's an associate's degree at a local community college for an hourly worker or an MBA for a management executive. CTI offers 100 percent tuition reimbursement. "Our educational commitment and spend is significant, but we also think it's a differentiator from some of our competitors," says McNeeley.
O'Neal offers employees more than just job training, with programs on personal finance and wellness. Not only is it the right thing to do, it offers its own return on investment, says Mark Jones, vice president of human resources for O'Neal Industries. "A healthy employee means they're focused on us when they're on the job." Specialized programs also are offered by various trade groups, such as the Metals Service Center Institute. MSCI provides its Strategic Metals Management program through Washington University in St. Louis, an intensive 18-month course. The association also offers numerous online programs, such as Metal Learn.
On the hourly side at most service centers, training involves mostly hands-on work with the various pieces of equipment used in processing and material handling. But one area that demands across-the-board attention is safety.
"We're not dealing with cotton balls here, we're dealing with steel. So we've got to make sure we get it right," says Stephanie Forand, human resources representative for Kloeckner Metals' Southwest Region.
Of course, training employees feels like a bad investment when they jump ship and take a job with a rival. But that's a risk companies should not hesitate to take, says Lindsay. "My philosophy is, give me five years of a really good employee and I'll take that every time over 20 years of an average guy." But, he adds, it's important that the industry do a better job of marketing itself to the next generation of leaders rather than simply poaching employees from competitors.
But restless employees may be the new norm, say the experts. Workers in the Millennial Generation are expected to seek out many different jobs, and many new experiences, rather than a company they can settle down with until retirement. That attitude will affect both the hiring and the retention process for employers. At the front end, they must understand that a jobs history with multiple moves is no longer a red flag. At the back end, they must accept that keeping young employees engaged and content will require more creative solutions.
"Whether you're a mill or a service center, if you want a young person to stay on an inside sales desk for 2-3 years, you're going to have to think about various projects or assignments to give them beyond the day-to-day routine. If you're not willing to continue to challenge, to mentor and competitively compensate them, you will lose them," says Weidner at MSCI.
Fortunately, the service center industry has several attributes that may help boost retention, once it gets these talented performers in the pipeline. "The service center industry is one of the few these days where people can run their own business in a relatively short period of time," Lindsay says. "In most other industries, you don't get to take charge until you are pretty long in the tooth. But if you succeed here, you can be running a $40-50 million business. It's a great story to tell."
The demographics of the metals industry provide opportunities for rapid advancement, concurs McNeeley. "If you look at the organizations in our industry, there are no 30- to 40-year-olds. There are young 20s and those 55 and above. Over 50 percent of the people employed in our industry will be retiring in the next five years. So this next generation coming in, they're going to get promoted and reach management positions much younger than we did."
Managing young employees may take more tact on an interpersonal level. On the plus-side, many are tech savvy and can be very productive working on their own. On the other hand, growing up in the new era of "supportive parenting"--or as some say "coddling"--has created a generation that is uncomfortable with criticism.
"The trend has been in play for some time to always be affirmative. When they get to the workforce, they're unaccustomed to someone looking them straight in the face and telling them 'you screwed up,'" says Sue Hamilton, vice president of human resources at CTI.
Of course, expecting the new group to simply bend to the will of the previous generation may be an exercise in futility. You must work with the employees you have, not the ones you wish you did.
"As we are hiring new people, we recognize they have different core values. Once we recognize it, then the challenge is how are we going to relate to it," says McCue."
Lindsay believes there are two approaches that can be taken when new hires are integrated into the company. "You can tell them to sit there, and in five years when you've learned the industry, you can have an opinion. Or you can an injection of new ideas and new blood that actually energizes the existing people, the ones who have been around a long time."
There's no mistaking the one he favors.
["We're not dealing with cotton balls here, we're dealing with steel. So we've got to make sure we get it right." Stephanie Forand, Kloeckner Metals.]
["My philosophy is, give me five years of a really good employee and I'll take that every time over 20 years of an average guy." Roger Lindsay, Ryerson Inc.]