One Company's Experience in Employee Attraction, Retention
With the recent expansion of its manufacturing facility, the addition of new production equipment, and growth in sales, Gateway Extrusions was able to double its workforce since late 2014.
With today’s thriving economy, the United States is experiencing a very tight labor market. This can be especially challenging for manufacturing as it is not always the first career of choice for young people entering the workforce. At Gateway Extrusions in Union, Missouri, outside St. Louis, the focus on getting “back to basics” has yielded very favorable results in terms of attracting and retaining qualified employees.
I’ve been in the extrusion business for over 30 years and with Gateway since 2006, and this is certainly one of the toughest labor markets I’ve seen. We are competing with many other businesses and manufacturers in the region for the best workers, and we’ve had to be very creative to be attractive as a workplace. For manufacturing in the aluminum extrusion, fabrication and finishing industry, that isn’t always easy.
My management team and I knew that, in order for Gateway to compete as a workplace of choice, we had to invest in the long term — in equipment, sales and, most of all, employees. Hearing employers say employees are the greatest asset may sound cliché, but we mean it.
Thomas Ziegler, president of operations at Gateway Extrusions, located in Union, Missouri.
Four years ago, Gateway embarked on a multiyear facility and equipment expansion and upgrade plan. Hiring at Gateway increased as the company expanded its products and services as well as the physical property. The workforce doubled to 130 employees over the course of the four-year expansion.
Gateway had to make sure its employee programs kept pace with expansion and hiring. At the same time new equipment was being acquired and installed, we enhanced and formalized several personnel initiatives and programs. The company examined and modified its employee benefits package to be more competitive and geared to employee needs. It’s a given that employee benefits have to be comparable with other similar businesses or the company won’t stand a chance. We wanted to go well beyond the bare minimum. Employees spend the majority of their time at work, so it has to be rewarding.
Attracting New Talent
Finding competent workers is the first challenge any business faces. For the past year and a half, Gateway has had a formal employee referral program in place and the results have been very positive. Employees may refer family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances they feel will be an asset to the Gateway team. If the person is hired and remains in good standing for six months, then the referring employee and the new employee receive a substantial cash bonus.
Employees have been a great source of new workers who fit in very well at Gateway. After all, who better to promote Gateway as a great place to work than satisfied current — and even former — employees who are going to refer people who will work out? Of course, Gateway also uses local employment agencies and online resources for specific talents as required.
Once new employees are in the door, the next challenge is keeping them. Gateway has focused on training and development along with career opportunities for its entire workforce as a positive way to do just that. Before a candidate accepts a position with Gateway, they tour the plant to observe work in progress in the intended department to get an overview of the operations. The candidate also meets plant managers and supervisors in every department. We try to give candidates a realistic idea of the work environment here so that when they start work, they already know what to expect.
About a year ago, Gateway started a Big Brother/Big Sister program, pairing newly hired employees with more seasoned nonsupervisory employees who can help them get acclimated to the work environment. In addition to talking with their direct supervisor, new employees who have questions or concerns of any kind can talk to the Big Brother or Sister for advise or as a sounding board. This has really helped the new employee retention rate and it engages our more experienced personnel in vital roles assisting new employees and the company.
Training and Development: Keys to Career Success
Training also begins once an employee starts working. Gateway uses on-the-job training with skilled, experienced team leaders and supervisors to develop specific job skills, and the company offers formal classes and seminars to build other skills. We encourage continued training at all levels.
In this region, we are fortunate to have many great technical and career educational institutions, and our employees are encouraged to take advantage of offered courses. We also work with local two-year colleges to develop any specific training we need.
Supervisors and managers attend seminars and take courses to help hone their leadership skills. When line workers are promoted to supervisory roles, it’s essential for Gateway to support them and give them the tools they need to succeed. Of course, some are natural leaders, but most newly promoted supervisors are in new territory and will benefit from skills development.
Gateway has had more employees attend training classes this year than ever before, and it is paying off. Employees are more confident in their decision-making and technical abilities, and are enjoying their new responsibilities.
Cross-training is another way Gateway keeps employees engaged and developing their experience and knowledge. Employees are encouraged to move to different departments if they want to and an opening is available. We believe the more of the operations our employees see and learn, the better they understand the final products going out the door and what customers need and value. Employees who have rotated through a few departments have said this helps them see the big picture and appreciate how their work fits in with departments upstream and downstream in the company’s production process. This, in turn, promotes improved quality and cooperation between departments.
Women in Manufacturing
One unexpected byproduct of Gateway’s emphasis on hiring, acclimation and training has been a sharp increase in the number of women in the workforce. Now at Gateway, one in four production workers are women.
The company didn’t set out to recruit women, in particular, but it’s happening. In our experience, women are referring other women and they are adapting to the manufacturing operations very well. When I started in the metal extrusion business 30 years ago, I remember just one woman on the production floor at the plant where I worked during the entire time I was there. Gateway now has women in every department.
Moreover, as women gain experience in various production functions, they are being promoted to supervisory roles. We are finding that women take the initiative, asking questions and learning the ins and outs of the job functions. Already we have women in leadership positions in our extrusion, fabrication, maintenance, paint and shipping departments. It’s been great inspiration for all our workers to see that Gateway encourages skills development and promotes from within.
What do the women at Gateway say about working here? Here are some observations and insights they have shared with management:
- Longtime employee Vicky Neal was a home health nurse before joining Gateway on the referral of a family member. She started in the paint department and has worked in several areas, gaining in-depth understanding of the overall operations. “I enjoy coming to work, I love the people I work with and, in each position, I was always given the opportunity to learn more,” said Neal.
- Newly hired employee Brenna Humphres works in the maintenance department. She came to Gateway via an online job posting while taking classes in equipment maintenance in the evenings and working in construction during the day. “My supervisor understands my lack of experience, gives me the chance to try and is ready to teach and train me so I learn more each day,” said Humphres. “I feel appreciated here.”
- Returning to Gateway after an extended family leave, Sara Wood is now a Quality Inspector, working across departments and training new employees. Previously, she worked in the paint department and was referred to Gateway by a friend who also works at the company. “I’ve worked in several factories and this is the favorite job I’ve had,” said Wood. “The supervisors, mentors and training are great, and there’s a real push to develop leadership and communications skills now as well.”
- Gateway’s first female in the extrusion department, Jerry Thompson, came to Gateway when her children started school. (Her sister also works at the company in fabrication.) “I was a helper, then an operator and now I am team leader of the 7-inch press,” said Thompson. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements since I started here. All the company’s new equipment and investments have made the work easier and more efficient.”
The Bottom Line
At Gateway, we believe work can be enjoyable and productive at the same time. We try to promote teamwork and a family atmosphere while making very high-quality products. We also believe management’s role is to create an environment where employees feel valued and can develop skills and competencies needed to enhance their careers.
This is not just a feel-good practice, it’s good for the bottom line and essential to keep Gateway competitive. Employees are much more likely to stay with us for the long term; the company retains highly skilled talent and reduces costly turnover; and Gateway remains an employer of choice for the region.
It’s truly rewarding to see our efforts succeed and employees referring family and friends to join our team.
Thomas Ziegler is president of operations at Gateway Extrusions, located in Union, Missouri. Visit gwextrusions.com/
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