The pandemic has drastically changed the workplace, especially as it relates to working from home, flexibility, work-life balance and the overall job market. Hiring was a major issue, according to Susan Carpenter, senior director of human resources, food and delivery, for Novolex.
"For a variety of reasons, including health concerns, caretaker responsibilities and shifting priorities, many people left or reduced their time in the workforce. Especially in my home state of Kentucky, we have one of the lowest number of available employees because many people are not working," she said.
"We also saw a rise in absenteeism during the pandemic, which has leveled out today," she added. "But overall, the workforce really struggled during the pandemic, and our manufacturing plants and labor teams had to adapt quickly to attract and retain talent."
And a workplace in flux affects other areas, Carpenter said.
"From Gatorade availability to restaurants, we are so interconnected. The global virus and subsequent supply chain issues highlighted for me that I took for granted a lot of the goods our workforce produces until they weren't available anymore," she said.
Carpenter attended Kennedy-Western University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in business management and leadership. Her role at the packaging maker falls under business partnerships and labor relations, dealing with contract negotiations, collective bargaining agreements and labor escalations.
"Whether it's with a union, a cross-functional team or people on my own team, there is so much value built when you can create a working partnership," she said. "Even when the issues that we are working through are contentious, I am proud of my ability to work through barriers and walk out of a room with a strong relationship."
Carpenter said her focus has always been on doing what's right for other people.
"Humility is often seen as a weakness in business, but I would like to think that I break that 'mold' by showing that I can be successful while helping others," she said. "I don't allow myself to be threatened by other people's growth — and I think I have helped strengthen my team because of that mentality."
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Carpenter: I think the strongest advice I ever received was from one of my managers, who was the vice president of labor relations. He told me that I needed to believe in myself. It sounds so simple, but at the time, I was not as certain of how strongly I could contribute to a team as I am today. My manager told me that I would always get in my own way if I didn't believe in myself first. I have taken that advice to heart in my own career, and I have also shared it with people that I mentor and coach.
Q: If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Carpenter: I think that people are at the heart of the company's success, so as CEO, I would work to understand my employees and how I can make things better for them. My father, a retired command sergeant major, always put the private — the entry military rank — first. That's the type of person I want to be: one who understands and prioritizes every person, from the top to the bottom of an organization.
Q: What emerging technology or market most interests you?
Carpenter: Automation is by far the most relevant, interesting and challenging technology related to my role at the moment. As our workforce changes, we are looking at roles that can become automated and those that require more specialized technical fields. We are in a business, like many others, where we're facing a shortage of workers. So, we are navigating through a workforce that is dealing with automation, labor supply issues and a need for investment in workforce development. We have to understand how automation affects people, how we navigate through this shift while prioritizing our workers and how our partners, like unions, are impacted.