Changing work attitudes: Are workers too soft?

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Bill Bregar Heavy Metal blogger Bill Bregar with the first car he bought, when he was in college. (Yes, the editors were shocked to see this too!)

The media — Plastics News included — is full of stories about "employee empowerment" and fostering a work environment where people feel wanted and have job satisfaction.

Heavy Metal is not talking just about young people here; this is not the often-parodied scenario where everybody gets a certificate for showing up.

No. Today every company has that attitude of asking employees how they like their jobs. Are they happy? Companies have suggestion boxes, and management actually reads the suggestions! They have pizza parties! Cookouts where the boss grills the food and serves it to the workers!

This edition of Heavy Metal is going to sound touchy-feely. But don't worry, later on I have some Metal-nostalgic thoughts on this subject. I remember back when the reward for work was simple: A paycheck.

Plastics News has covered this quite a bit. Low unemployment is a big motivator now, but these changes are permanent.

In our Aug. 6 issue, we ran a story about TK Mold & Engineering Inc., and about young people. TK owners Tom and Krista Barr have done an outstanding job of finding and recruiting young mold makers. Of their 20 machinists, 14 of them are 19 to 25 years old.

A big part of the success of the Romeo, Mich.-based TK Mold goes to Krista Barr, Tom's wife, who has a master's degree in social work. She keeps in regular touch with the young employees in TK's apprenticeship program. "How's it going? Are you getting the help you need in your area? Are we training you properly? I'm constantly asking the kids that," she said.

The Barrs say they have created a workplace where the employees can stay and make a career. Young people want their work to be meaningful.

Now let's move to the rotational molding industry, where the work is hard, hot and physically demanding. It's not easy to find someone to run a rotomolding machine. Ken Bather, plant manager at Hedstrom Plastics' factory in Dunkirk, Ohio, is a regular speaker about shop floor employee issues at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Rotational Molding Conference.

Bather, who is Scottish, sprinkles lots of humor in his talks. But he understands the challenge of getting rotomolding factory workers in an area where larger manufacturing operations are hiring and even Walmart has boosted pay.

Bather noted how treating employees with respect can help build a culture where people want to come to work. "How do we treat people? How do we interact with our floor associates?" he asked fellow rotomolders at the conference in Cleveland in June. "We want to have continuous improvement not just in the quality of our parts, but also in our working conditions."

A veteran of rotomolding, Bather knows what he's talking about. "We have a changing workplace. We have a changing workforce. Changing attitude toward coworkers. Changing attitudes toward work, and also, expectations from the workforce," he said.

This is all great. Heavy Metal gets it. And make no mistake that Heavy Metal is too old to run a rotomolding machine.

But let's return to past generations. My father was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania, then he moved to Cleveland to become an autoworker. He loaded door panels for Cadillacs onto the assembly line. They shipped them by rail to another factory.

I never heard him complain that his boss yelled at him, or that he needed some motivation. He got paid. That was enough for people like my dad, who built the cars, made the steel and mined the coal that built our country.

I'm 57, and even my own generation still had some of that work-a-day attitude. Here's a story from the late 1970s. I was a dishwasher at York Steakhouse in a mall. (For younger readers, York was a chain where you went through the cafeteria-style line and ordered your food. A mall was a place where people drove their cars, parked and went in to shop).

I was in high school. We had one manager who was really nasty, who obviously was trying to move up in the company. He would rush to the back of the house — aka, the kitchen — and yell and swear at us that we didn't know the proper, by-the-book way to sweep and mop the floors. He threw things around.

OK let's just say it — he was evil. Management had all the empowerment and the workers had none.

But I never thought to quit. That never crossed our minds, although the minute he went back to the front of the house, we dishwashers gave him the finger and laughed. In fact, we asked for more hours so that we could make more money.

I remember when you used to go to a McDonald's during the peak lunch hour and hear managers yelling at the burger flippers, who in turn screamed at the person at the french fry station. Nobody batted an eye.

You worked for that paycheck in your hand. Years ago, when Plastics News publisher Crain Communications went to direct deposit and did away with paper checks, I was kind of sad. I had worked for that piece of paper since I was 15 years old.

So yes, Heavy Metal understands it's not like that today. But let us older people remember the simpler times, when our attitude was: Abuse me, just pay me.