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Comprehensive approach to employee development is key: ARC panelists

Feb. 10, 2015
Young workers are eager to expand their skill set and want to see how the work they do affects their organization.

They're impatient. Needy. Demanding. As a generation, they expect more from their employers in terms of benefits and career advancement opportunities, and they expect it sooner.

Millennials have heard it all before. But the criticisms frequently leveled at the newest generation to shape the workforce reflect a short-sighted view—one that fails to appreciate the open-mindedness, adaptability and enthusiasm for learning that Millennials bring to the job, according to panelists at a workforce development session at the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando, Fla., on Monday.

Young workers are eager to expand their skill set and want to see how the work they do affects their organization: That was a common refrain throughout the session, which featured three rising leaders in engineering and information systems and one recently retired industry veteran offering their perspectives on developing and retaining talent.

Panelists at the Developing the Future Workforce: Leaders in an Evolving Manufacturing World" session at the ARC Industry Forum in Orlando on Monday

Workers born after 1980 are "the best generation of collaborators we've seen," said Patty Sparrell, who retired in the past year as a manager in process engineering and optimization for ExxonMobil.

"Let's take advantage of the collaboration skill of new employees," Sparrell urged. Furthermore, because Millennnials are used to adjusting quickly to a rapid pace of technological change, they can be powerful advocates for innovation and process improvement on the plant floor or in the office—if they feel their ideas and skills are valued and they have bought in to the organization's mission.

"I wanted to feel like I could make an impact in a company even as a new hire," said panelist Tyler Lemke, a 2014 college graduate hired by 3M as a control system engineer. Lemke added that he "wanted a place where you didn't have to worry about walking by a person's cube or office and saying hi or asking a question," regardless of the person's role.

To improve new hires' chances for success—and help the company realize a return on investment in fresh talent—3M pairs new hires with mentors as well as "buddies." Mentors offer technical and career guidance; buddies help new employees navigate their workplace and get acclimated to the company culture.

Because 3M's "buddies" have been with the company only two or three years themselves, they're sensitive to new hires' common questions and concerns. You can ask a buddy a question you might not feel comfortable asking a mentor for fear of sounding naive, Lemke said.

3M also looks to boost employee retention by offering post-work social events, volunteer opportunities (highly valued by socially conscious Millennials) and both "hard skill" and "soft skill" training. For example, the company offers formal training in networking, Lemke noted.

Having—and following—a formal on-boarding process for new employees is vital, panelists commented. A company's best-laid plans to integrate new hires into the organization count for little if those charged with coaching new employees don't commit to their role, or if frequent travel in the first few months on the job means a new employee doesn't have time to meet with an assigned mentor.

Alyssa Thomas, a process automation engineer for Dow Chemical, noted that when she was a new hire, her assigned technical coach didn't initiate regular meetings or attend the project planning sessions in which she was taking part. Moreover, her "peer coach" (similar to a 3M "buddy") was assigned to a new role while Thomas was still fresh on the job. As a result, "I didn't know what I didn't know," Thomas said.

There's danger for employers in "I didn't know what I didn't know," panelists agreed. In addition to raising the risk for technical and other on-the-job mistakes (possibly critical ones), leaving new hires or recently promoted workers with the feeling that they're floating along on their own is a fast way to promote disengagement—and, thus, turnover. With new-hire as well as mid-career development and training, success depends on following through with formal training, they said.

Sparrell noted the importance of career development programs and continuing education for the Gen X and mid-level employees poised to take over key leadership roles as baby boomers continue to retire in the next three to 10 years. "Don't forget your middle," she said. "You don't want your mid-career folks not to be valued. Take your supervisors and turn them into leaders."

Within the manufacturing space, mid-career employees have all of their engineering and technical fundamentals in place, Sparrell noted—but it's vital for a company to help them learn how to leverage this expertise as influence.

Given the enormous demographic shifts in the U.S. workforce, the economic and strategic value of talent development and retention programs can't be overstated, according to panelists. Said Thomas: "If you invest in your people, they will be inspired to invest back in the company."

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