To boost employee retention in manufacturing, consider training supervisors

For the past several months, the manufacturing industry added an average of 14,000 jobs per month. The employment rate for the industry is 3.8% — lower than the national average — and there are still hundreds of thousands of job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As opportunities grow for workers in this sector, firms must stay ahead of the factors that can lure employees out the door.

One important factor in any workplace, no matter the industry, is the relationship between supervisors and the employees they manage. A study by Gallup found that one in two employees has left a job to escape a manager at some point in their career.

In other words, some people really do quit their jobs because of their bosses. “What I’ve seen in my experience, and I’ve worked with several manufacturing companies, is that it’s even more true in manufacturing,” says Carol Ann Caccioppoli, a training and development professional and owner of Tri-C Training + Consulting. In manufacturing, managers are often promoted because of good performance on the production floor. Their new role, supervising employees, requires an entirely different set of skills than their previous job. However, often managers receive little or no training to guide the transition. Another problem: “In manufacturing, frequently the supervisors are also working supervisors, so they’re actually doing some of the same work as the people they’re working with. It’s like they’re down in the trenches.” This proximity can exacerbate tensions.

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To decrease turnover and increase employee retention, fostering relationships between supervisors and employees is critical. Supervisors may need training to learn the skills that will help them build an effective and productive work environment.

Feedback. Gallup found that employees who receive feedback about their strengths and accomplishments have turnover rates nearly 15% lower than those who don’t receive feedback.

There is very little scheduled feedback in manufacturing organizations, Caccioppoli says. Feedback doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be frequent. “I try very hard to make sure folks don’t do the once-a-year performance appraisal,” she says.

There’s a better way to make sure your workers receive feedback — and feel heard at the same time.

“I think feedback needs to be more of a participatory type of thing, say, ‘how can we increase the production here? Or what do you think could be different? Or how can we change the environment?” she says.

Managers should let employees know how they are doing in relation to expectations. “Would you like your boss to say, ‘we had a really productive day and this was great, thanks to you?’” asks Caccioppoli. For most people, the answer is an obvious yes. However, many managers never think to do this.

Training can help managers learn how to apply the right level of support and direction to achieve high performance.

Transparency. Employees in manufacturing are less likely to quit if they have a supervisor who is empowering, according to a study from the South African Journal of Industrial Psychology. Empowering leaders share information, ask for feedback, delegate, and encourage accountability to increase employee engagement.

In manufacturing, supervisors are sometimes selected from a pool of workers on the production line. Now a supervisor is managing his or her former peers — which can be an adjustment. “You had all been discussing how bad management was, and now you are them,” says Caccioppoli. Transparency is the answer here.

“You need to say, ‘listen, I want your feedback, I want your ideas, but sometimes now I have to look at the big picture,” says Caccioppoli. Managers should also reassure their team that if they know something that impacts them, so long as it’s not confidential company business, they will share it.

These conversations are not always simple. Training can help managers communicate transparently and handle sensitive and important situations.

The fix: training and coaching. It takes time and money to train managers, but the return on investment is often very favorable. A study on manager training from The International Journal of Human Resource Management suggests that management training is effective, and the intensity of training is important.

In other words, one class probably isn’t enough. “I’m finding that more companies want to do a half day of management training, and you’re supposed to be ‘fixed,’” says Caccioppoli. That’s not realistic. First, coaches need a few hours just to establish trust and rapport with the trainees. Then, once the managers learn skills in class, they need a chance to practice them and evaluate them. This whole process takes more than a day.

That’s why Caccioppoli usually builds classes that are administered one day a month for six months. “When you go through all the steps you realize it’s a process, not a drive-by,” says Caccioppoli. Participants can try the techniques from class and report back 30 days later with their results. “Otherwise you’re drawing folks into the water and you’re not on the other side of the lake waiting for them to climb out,” she says.

It’s smart to work with trainers and mentors, even from outside the organization. Often workers in manufacturing start at a firm right out of high school and build their career within that one firm. “You don’t know anything else, and so it seems like it’s the way it is here, it’s normal — this is the way we do things here,” Caccioppoli says. “And coaches who have worked in a lot of organizations can frequently come in and right away see what could be different based on their experiences in other manufacturing organizations.”

From there, it makes sense to build on the training in-house. “In an ideal world, what I would like to see is someone within an organization that can follow a company maybe for a full six months or a year,” says Caccioppoli. This person, the master coach, can help supervisors implement best practices.

Online training modules may also be helpful to reinforce concepts taught in person.

In this competitive labor market, companies cannot afford to lose employees as a result of ineffective supervision. A small investment in training for first-line managers could pay large dividends over time.

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Seth Stein

Seth Stein
Seth Stein is the president of workforce recruitment at Eastridge Workforce Solutions, a technology-enabled workforce solutions provider based in San Diego, CA.

Seth Stein

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