Q: I run a manufacturing firm. It used to be easy to hire people – if they had experience with the machines or processes we use in our company they were often hired. But now, it’s more competitive there. I think I need people who bring something more than just a manufacturing line skill. What do you think?

A: We would agree. Winning Workplaces recently finished writing up a group of case studies of several winners of our great small workplace awards, and other progressive firms in our network, for theHitachi Foundation. Along with many other elements necessary to create a winning workplace culture, such as open communication and recognition programs that resonate with and motivate employees, we took a close look at their hiring practices.

Below are approaches that five of the companies we profiled use to define the cultural traits they are looking for, assess candidates during the interview process and continue to reward them once hired. Note that all of the firms except for Mather LifeWays are manufacturers.

HUI – Founded 1933 – Kiel, WI – 90 employees

When hiring, HUI looks first for a strong cultural fit, then a high school diploma or GED, problem solving abilities, and team orientation. They are less focused on specific technical capabilities. “What we need in our people now is much different than in the past,” explains Nick Rolf of Human Resources. “We are not looking for people that just want to sit at a machine and pump out production. We want them to aspire to different things. We need men and women that have a fresh set of ideas, willing to take risks and try new things.”

From the start, new recruits are exposed to a variety of experiences involving the design and manufacturability of products, including:

  • Mastering various machinery and equipment
  • Taking a corrective action to solve a problem
  • Implementing a Lean or Kaizen principle
  • Working on a repair or quality issue in the field
  • Interacting with customers
  • Updating, modifying and documenting a Standard Work Procedure

It can be a tall order to find this kind of new recruit, but HUI has steadily gained a reputation in the region as an employer that is fair, pays competitively and invests in its people. Consequently, they tend to attract people that take pride in their trade and want to tackle new challenges.

Mather LifeWays – Founded 1941 – Evanston, IL – 608 employees

Mather LifeWays lives by a core set of values that guide their daily activities with employees, customers and residents: Lifelong Engagement, Excellence, Relationships Based on Respect and Transformation. These values are taken into account as they recruit and hire new employees, as managers act as coaches to draw out the best in their employees, as supervisors perform annual performance reviews and when they need to separate employees that are not a fit for the culture.

New Belgium Brewing – Founded 1991 – Ft. Collins, CO – 365 employees

New Belgium Brewing (NBB) has a national reputation for being an employer of choice; consequently it receives an abundance of resumes for most of its entry-level positions. When hiring, they look for applicants that possess good basic communication and computer skills. In addition, management places a high value on the behavioral interview that is conducted for new recruits assessing their:

  • Ability to operates in teams
  • Desire to continue to learn and grow
  • Passion for NBB values around sustainability and customer care

Turnover has been historically low at NBB, averaging around 7 percent for the last three years.

Optimax Systems – Founded 1991 – Ontario, NY – 140 employees

CEO Rick Plympton says they must hire technicians for the 21st century. “These are the people who can program computerized machinery and have strong math, science and communication skills,” he says.

Over the years, Optimax has built strong relationships with area high schools and colleges in order to ensure a workforce pipeline with an interest in manufacturing, so it is not unusual for the firm to have a handful of high school interns at the company. Entry-level wages are competitive; hourly technicians can earn from $9-$15 depending on their skills and experience. Since the firm spends so much time recruiting and developing employees, their leaders intend to keep them. Optimax’s turnover is low, averaging 16 percent annually over the last three years; average length of tenure is eight years.

SRC Electrical – Founded 1991 – Springfield, MO – 80 employees

Thus far, 2010 looks very promising: sales are up and the firm is in hiring mode looking for additional recruits that have:

  • A GED or High school diploma,
  • Basic exposure to machinery or equipment repair, and
  • A desire to work in a manufacturing setting.

Most importantly, according to Tim Baltes of Human Resources, “We look for those people that are more entrepreneurial – not those with an assembly mindset. We need people who are willing to ask questions, think critically and speak out.”

Best of luck using the above or other practices to revamp your hiring approach. We look forward to your reports of progress on this front.

— Winning Workplaces, November 17, 2010