Businesses must embrace the multi-generational workforce

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s Council of Small Business Executives (COSBE) recently hosted a panel discussion about “Creating and Igniting a Multi-Generational Workplace.”

The panel of experts discussed their experiences with training and engaging multiple generations of workers.

By 2015, one in five workers is expected to be 55 or older. When they start retiring, there will be a critical shortage of qualified employees, said Mary Steinbrecher, executive director of COSBE.

“It’s eye-opening for the employers to really understand how important it is to start addressing the issue,” she said. “It’s coming. There’s no stopping it.”

It’s important for employers to create a culture that embraces all generations, especially the younger ones, to attract new talent to replace aging workers, Steinbrecher said.
“The knowledge transfer is so critical as a lot of these folks who are retiring have been employed for generations and the knowledge they have is in their head,” she said.
The talent pipeline shortage has made this a human capital era, Steinbrecher said.
“We know that it is a very relevant and critical topic for our members,” she said. “With my interaction with business folks on a regular basis, this is a topic that comes up continually.”

Andy Hepburn, program director for GPS Education Partners, introduced the speakers and described the work GPS does to integrate younger workers in the manufacturing workforce.

The nonprofit places high school students in its on-site education program at local manufacturing companies. They attend classes for part of the day and learn manufacturing skills the remainder of the time.

The arrangement is effective for not only the students, but the mentors as well, Hepburn said.

“You take someone who’s been doing a job for 25 years and now they’re teaching the skills to somebody else—that motivates them, that energizes them,” he said.
The students and younger workers GPS works with have different priorities than older generations, he said. They like to work for a mission or purpose higher than themselves. They will change careers more frequently and they are more used to multi-tasking, so critical thinking will engage them longer than repetitive tasks.

“You want to create open workplaces where people are free to share ideas and promote learning at all levels,” Hepburn said. “Developing continuous learning processes within the business environment keeps people engaged and gets them learning and helps grow the company.”

Tailored Label Products Inc. has developed different pathways for its employees based on their skill and age groups, said president Mike Erwin. The Menomonee Falls company recruits and trains technical college graduates, college graduates, GPS Education’s high school students and employees from traditional temporary staffing firms. It makes for a varied workforce.

Erwin has worked to develop succession plans for critical roles at Tailored Label. The company’s 95 employees are trained in a 3×3 format: each employee needs to have the skills to perform three jobs and a minimum of three employees per shift perform each job.

“We try and have that as broad as humanly possible, right into customer care and account management,” he said. “The reason we’re doing it is not only for versatility and flexibility and vacation … it’s really, ‘what is your career path?'”

Career pathways are suggested based on an employee’s age and work style. Younger employees tend to do better in digitally dominant roles, and it takes less time to train those who have an affinity for digital tasks.

“The students or the new hires are more disposed to computerization and computer technology,” Erwin said. “We want the young employees as they come into the workplace, wherever they are, to know that they’re not pigeonholed into one area.”
Tailored Label similarly devotes less training time to older hires who have years of experience in a different style of printing. They have the base knowledge, but just need to learn the company’s technology and machinery.

“I brought in an individual who is 50 years old from a plant that shut down and he in about three months time became one of our most proficient skilled practitioners,” Erwin said.

Tailored Label also assures its systems are working by auditing regularly to get feedback from employees. It has established a defined set of values and beliefs to unite the team. Employees who meet monthly goals are rewarded.

“If we do those things right in terms of bringing them to the forefront and being recognized and cared for, we don’t have an issue with age-based motivation,” he said.
Since Erwin became owner and president 10 years ago, Tailored Label has maintained a retention rate between 95 and 97 percent.

Milwaukee-based Rexnord Industries has offered youth apprenticeships at its eight Milwaukee area facilities for several years. They are targeted to students in their second and third years of college and are focused on engineering, applied engineering and facilities engineering.

But the company realized a few years ago it would need to bring in more young workers to fill the talent pipeline that its experienced employees will be vacating.

“Our big challenge was we have a very mature workforce and over the next five to 10 years we knew we were going to have a lot of them leaving through retirement,” said Scott Bean, director of operations. “We saw a lot of our skills, which is the knowledge of the 1970s, 1980s style gearboxes, were going to be retiring quickly. How do we get this mature knowledge workforce to provide training and do the proverbial data dump out of their mind and who do they give that to?”

The GPS Education program that Rexnord introduced about three years ago has brought in the younger age bracket and helped motivate youths to get interested in the manufacturing career path, he said.

With on-site mentor training, the company was able to get its older employees ready to share their skills with a younger generation of workers. The students are energetic, and the mentors are excited in the interest in their trades, Bean said.

“There’s a lot of pride in what they’ve learned in 40-plus years of experience and being able to share that with somebody … is very motivating to them,” he said.

Each mentor is assigned one student, and there are six students spread among the local facilities. By September, there will be 10 students at Rexnord.

Rexnord gathers feedback from both the trainer and student to improve communication and learning during the process.

Bean hopes the older generations can provide an example of how to be a good employee, too.

“How do we get the next generation of workers to understand work ethic, social skills in the workplace,” he said. “The young kids don’t necessarily know how to communicate as well as say a generation ago, so that’s going to be a challenge.”

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