Using 'soft skills' requires dedication

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Plastics News photo by Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering Inc.

TAMPA, FLA. — Fred Keller talked about understanding poverty. Maureen Steinwall explained how to orient new hires using short, simple chunks. Their presentations at Plastics News' Executive Forum showed how the so-called "soft skills" of human resources are actually pretty hard.

In this video from the forum, Keller details his firm's welfare-to-work efforts.

Keller and Steinwall are both well-recognized for progressive HR policies at their custom injection molding companies. Keller's Cascade Engineering Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., had pioneered moving people from welfare to work, giving ex-convicts a chance and hiring military veterans. Maureen Steinwall, president and CEO of Steinwall Inc., has a Ph.D. in organization and management. Her dissertation had this title: "Multimedia Training of Optimism Competencies."

"We learn how to be pessimistic, learned helplessness. And you kind of give up in life," Steinwall said.

Both industry leaders gave separate presentations, then they shared the stage for a panel discussion March 4 during the Executive Forum.

Both companies are past winners of Plastics News' Processor of the Year Award, Cascade in 2001 and Coon Rapids, Minn.-based Steinwall last year.

"The power of business is immense" to help find solutions to society's woes, Keller said. Cascade uses a "triple bottom line" approach: People. Planet. Profit.

"I like to think of it as using the power of business to solve some of the world's toughest problems. We have the ability as business. There's no institution that's bigger than business," he said.

Barriers of poverty

Keller said Cascade's welfare-to-work effort began in the mid-1990s. He hired Ron Jimmerson, a religious man and social worker, to lead the project.

Through one of Jimmerson's connections, Cascade worked with a nonprofit called Faith Inc. that recruited unemployed and homeless individuals on welfare. Faith Inc. did some pre-employment training and the state of Michigan subsidized a van to pick up and drop off the program participants from work. But the van program privileges were abused in some cases and didn't work out well.

A few years later, Keller said, he teamed with a friend who owned area Burger Kings; the idea was he would first hire them for the fast-food outlets, get them basic job skills and then Cascade would hire them for higher pay.

It was a good idea, Keller said, but the people faced a lot of barriers. Cascade leaders had to try learn about poverty. They read the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. "We were able to change our culture from more or less of a judgmental culture to a supportive culture," he said.

The company paid $40,000 a year for a government social worker, based on the factory floor. For company management, it was not an easy process.

Keller spelled it out: "When you think of how people respond in poverty, it's a different frame than what we're used to in the middle and upper class. A couple of cases: If you think about food. When you're in poverty it's all about quantity. When you're in middle class it's about quality. And you know if you're in the upper classes, it's about presentation.

"If you're thinking about money, if you're in poverty it's to be spent. You don't know when you're going to get your next dollar. Now that sounds counter-intuitive to us because, if you're in the middle class you think about managing your money. And if you're in the upper class you think about investing your money. These are different ways in which we view the world, and having that understanding was really critical to us to be able to be supportive of the folks that were coming to us in poverty."

Making the effort to hire these unconventional workers has paid off, mainly in reduced turnover, which Keller said can be high when using standard temporary workers. Cascade's retention rate for its Welfare-to-Career program, on a monthly basis, is more than 97 percent, and its annual employee turnover is less than half the national average for manufacturing.

Keller's presentation was an onstage chat with Robert Grace, Plastics News' associate publisher, editorial and conference director. Grace cited a 2012 Aspen Institute study that showed Cascade's efforts in 2004 and 2005 saved the state of Michigan an estimated $975,000 in welfare payments, food stamps and child-care vouchers. At the same time, it also provided Cascade with estimated net benefits of more than $500,000 over five years.

Keller also told how he hired a 36-year-old ex-con who had never before held a job, but had worked in a prison release program to get one and retain it. He moved up to become a supervisor at one of Cascade's plants.

Keller said he has worked hard to sensitize all employees to racism. The goal is to let each employee know he or she is valued as a person.

"We're trying to create a safe place where you can talk about race. Where you can have a safe discussion about it," he said.

Most important, Keller stressed, is to understand that while these various initiatives may be motivated by the desire to do good morally, ethically and environmentally, they unquestionably have translated into good business. Cascade's revenues have grown from $232 million in 2006 to more than $300 million in 2012, and the company has extensive metrics to document its progress.

Empowering people

Maureen Steinwall's molding company, meanwhile, is a leader in employee training, through the use of video work instructions at the press using iPads running PowerPoint presentations. Her Executive Forum talk covered orientation of new employees — a process Steinwall Inc. has largely automated, through short, often funny, animated videos. "More than 10 minutes and you'll lose people," she said, explaining that adults learn best "just in time," getting answers to immediate problems, instead of sitting for hours in a classroom.

Steinwall has devoted years of study — academic and on the molding shop floor — to how to empower employees and try to reduce human error, which she said is a major cause of quality issues.

When people make mistakes, the idea is to train them to move forward with confidence. "Every person makes one mistake a day. An organization can be flawless but a human being can make a mistake," she said.

Steinwall also is open to hiring people outside the norm. She hired a theology major graduate with huge college loans. The graduate wanted to help people, so Steinwall put her on the help desk for information technology, and she may move into HR.

In a panel discussion at the Tampa event, Russ Riendeau, who runs executive search firm East Wing Group Inc. in Barrington, Ill., said manufacturing companies should be careful when "growing their own talent" by promoting from within. The person has to fit the job. "It's very difficult to take someone from customer service and put them into sales," he said.

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