When considering workforce issues, consider both pay and culture

Workforce issues are always a top concern for plastics processors. It seems like every time we write about the topic, we start by saying something like “now more than ever,” or “and the problem is getting even worse.”That said, especially in 2021, that’s all true. The problem is getting worse.Business is good for most North American plastics processors. Consumers have money to spend, and brand owners who have been burned by unreliable global supply chains (or worried that they could be) are inclined to source plastics goods and related products domestically. Processor company executives feel like they could really capitalize on the opportunity, if only they could hire more people.One recent complaint we hear from processors is that they’re competing with Amazon for new hires. The e-commerce retailer is expanding almost everywhere, and it needs entry-level workers. Good people who want an extra dollar an hour are leaving plastics factories for Amazon warehouses.We know how hard you’re trying. I got a note from a reader a few weeks ago saying her firm was outbidding other employers “for felons, homeless and transient people just to get a labor force to continue to operate.” Point taken. And the company’s biggest competitor, she said, was the federal government and its enhanced unemployment checks.Now those are ending. But workforce experts don’t expect the employment problem to immediately disappear. COVID, child care and other issues that are keeping people from working aren’t going away. One of the most popular stories on PlasticsNews.com last week was Catherine Kavanaugh’s feature “Plastics executives face daunting labor crunch.” Let’s put that into perspective: A story on workforce issues was just as popular as our coverage of Hurricane Ida and its impact on the resin market. The labor crunch isn’t new. But our readers are still intensely interested in the topic.How do we fix the problem? The simple answer is to pay more, and that’s already happening. The Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors recently released its 2021 Wage and Salary Report, which showed that wages for temporary help, which is entry level for many plastics processors, rose nearly 13 percent last year, and is now $14 an hour.But pay alone isn’t the answer. In many places, fast-food workers already earn that much, or more. And those restaurants are also begging for workers. Plastics factories need to be competitive on wages. They also need to compete in an area that’s less tangible, and harder to change. That’s culture.Culture is an area where I think many plastics processors already do well, but there’s always room for improvement.Most of the plastics companies that I visit are probably above average when it comes to culture. Factories with labor issues aren’t likely to welcome a visit from an editor. But having a good company culture goes a long way when it comes to helping to attract — and retain — good workers.At many companies, when I ask workers about the culture, they say it is “like a family.” Think about your workplace. It’s probably a lot more like a family than your local Amazon warehouse or fast-food restaurant.But that’s not the only successful strategy.One molding plant that I visited had the vibe of a tech company. Another reminded me of a high school football locker room, with workers constantly competing for recognition. Both models worked, even though they had little in common.You show your culture in the way you support workers, their families and your community: by getting involved, caring and making everyone’s lives better.Do you offer training? Real opportunities to advance and take on more responsibility? How about benefits like health insurance and paid vacations? Employers in some big cities are offering pet insurance to attract workers. I haven’t seen any processors offer that yet. But plenty offer other cool benefits, like attractive work schedules, quarterly profit-sharing and hiring bonuses.Finally, here’s some advice: Ask workers what they want. Our annual Best Places to Work program can help. If you participate, Best Companies Group will survey all of your employees, giving them the opportunity to offer their honest feedback.I didn’t write this column to promote the awards, but if you are interested, the deadline is Oct. 15, 2021. But I bring it up because we’ve done similar surveys at Plastics News‘ parent company, Crain Communications, and I think they’ve been helpful. Over time, I’ve seen how our management and human resources department has taken some of the findings from the employee engagement surveys and made Crain a better place to work. Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.Do you have an opinion about this story? 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