Sometimes workforce development means aggressively going after government grants and paying close attention to training programs. But other times it means letting go and giving employees their say.
Bemis Manufacturing Co., for example, regularly solicits ideas from employees and implements them. The Sheboygan Falls, Wis.-based company said it implemented about 200 such ideas last year and reduced bottom-line costs by $1.2 million.
If the idea makes sense, the injection molding company often tells employees to just go ahead and don't worry about detailed return-on-investment studies, said Peter Bemis, executive vice president. But that requires management to put trust in employees, he said, and employ a principle of management guru W. Edwards Deming: 95 percent of quality problems are caused by management decisions, not by employees.
``If you have a [chief executive officer] who is a control freak, it's not going to work,'' he said. ``You have a big rock and you're trying to break it up into a bunch of smaller rocks that everybody can carry.''
Bemis spoke at a forum on workforce development sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., held Sept. 29 at Plastics USA in Chicago.
Other executives echoed that theme.
Todd Bennett, vice president and general manager of injection molder United Southern Industries Inc. in Forest City, N.C., said his company lets employees see financial data, and employee teams are charged with coming up with ideas to improve profitability.
They've hit on some good ones, he said, ranging from the company's first-ever detailed marketing plan to suggestions to put plasma screens in the break rooms to present snazzy PowerPoint presentations that both explain company goals and include pictures of who is having a birthday.
Those multimedia presentations have gotten a lot more attention than the drab bulletin boards they replaced, he said.
That change in thinking is part of a broader effort at USI to reinvent the company. It's paid some dividends, Bennett said, with sales per employee rising from $88,000 five years ago to $140,000 today. Companies have to find a way to make employees part of the process and recognize their ideas, he said.
``People don't share the same passion we do as managers, but they do share a passion to want to succeed,'' Bennett said.
Another part of USI's plan is more traditional: The company has gone after training resources aggressively.
The firm has brought in the local community college to teach English as a second language, and is teaching GED classes in plants, all funded at least in part with government money. And the company has used North Carolina's state university system to do business-development studies.
It's paid off, Bennett said, but working with government agencies requires patience, he said.
``You have to be crafty, persistent and creative,'' Bennett said. ``You have to be willing to go through the process.''
Companies may not realize that government dollars are available for training programs, said Joseph Barto, president and CEO of Training Modernization Group. Many times, companies already are paying for it through payroll taxes and other fees, which means they should not hesitate to approach workforce agencies, he said.
``You should walk in and say, `I want $30,000 worth of services,' '' he said.
Precise Technology Inc. in North Versailles, Pa., has secured state funds for programs like English as a second language and operator training, said Sharon Schmeisser, human resources manager for Precise's plant in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
The large injection molder of packaging and other custom products had its eyes opened by a skills-assessment test pertaining to one of the main challenges in workforce development. The firm found that some of its machine operators read below the seventh-grade level, she said.
``How are you going to develop those employees from the ground up?'' Schmeisser said. ``It's a major, major undertaking.''