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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 3, 2005

Lots of turnover, lack of well-trained employees take toll

Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser

When Mark Bass goes to work at 7 a.m. each day, he checks the machinery, makes some repairs and installs new wires wherever they are needed.

He is an electrician and has been for decades.

But what sets Bass apart is not his choice of profession, it's his choice of companies. More precisely, it's his choice of a company, Albany International in Montgomery, Ala., where he has worked for 37 years.

"I always thought the money was fair and then after a while, it becomes home," Bass said. "This is the only job I've ever had."

Albany International manufactures huge plastic mesh cloths for use on papermaking machines, and has supplied the paper industry with similar products for decades.

Bass' decision to stick with one company his whole career sets him apart in the increasingly volatile job market, according to one business consultant.

Roger E. Herman, author of "Keeping Good People" and CEO of the North Carolina-based Herman Group, said America is facing an employee-retention crisis, spurred by two factors.

First, in the five years leading up to 2000, many U.S. employees became accustomed to easy jumps from job to job. When the economy suffered about five years ago, employees had a harder time moving around, and this, according to Herman, led to a restless workforce.

"As a result of the slowdown, people could not transfer from one company to another. They got stuck," Herman said. "Guess what, the economy has picked up, things have gotten better. What's happening right now is (that) employee turnover has begun again in earnest."

The second factor is what Herman describes as "the most severe shortage of skilled labor in history." America just doesn't have enough adequately trained and educated people to fill the jobs, he said, making the issue of employee retention all the more important.

"If (businesses) don't hold onto their people, they aren't going to be able to serve their customers. If you can't fulfill your mission, then you are out of business," Herman said. "If you aren't taking care of your people, then essentially you are committing corporate suicide."

Officials at Albany International say they have had tremendous success retaining employees, even after many companies struggled to retain their workforce as Hyundai began hiring for its massive manufacturing plant in Montgomery.

"We work and we get things done, but there's no supervisor riding you. Every time you stop and talk, there's not somebody on your back saying, 'Hey, keep going,' " said Maurice Rollins, the total-quality manager at Albany.

Rollins reached 10 years of service to the company recently. More than 40 percent of the Albany workforce of nearly 100 employees has been with Albany more than 20 years. Twenty-one employees have topped the 30-year mark.

Montgomery's Rheem Heaters has seen similar success, according to company officials. Dan Jones, vice president of human resources for the water heater division, said the company has developed a culture that promotes higher retention.

"It has a cost anytime you lose the knowledge and experience a seasoned employee has. The cost primarily is the knowledge and experience," Jones said. "We accept that some turnover is the normal course of doing business, but what we do is try to manage it within reasonable parameters."

Why employees walk away

Employee retention is an important part of running a successful business, according to business consultants and managers. Here are some of the most common reasons people leave jobs, from workplace expert Roger E. Herman, who published a book on the subject.

  • It doesn't feel good around here: This is a corporate culture issue in most cases. Workers also are concerned with the company's reputation, the physical conditions of comfort, convenience and safety, and the clarity of mission.

  • They wouldn't miss me if I were gone: Even though leaders do value employees, they don't tell them often enough. If people don't feel important, they're not motivated to stay. No one wants to be a commodity, easily replaced by someone off the street.

  • I don't get the support I need to get my job done: Contrary to opinions heard all too often from management, people really do want to do a good job. When they're frustrated by too many rules, red tape, or incompetent supervisors or co-workers, people look for other opportunities.

  • There's no opportunity for advancement: No, we're not talking about promotions, although many deserving people would like to move up. The issue here is learning. People want to learn, to sharpen their skills and learn new ones. They want to improve their capacity to perform a wide variety of jobs.

  • Compensation is the last reason most people leave: That's a brash statement, but it's true. Workers want fair compensation, but the first four aspects must be strong. If they're not, but money is high, you'll hear people say, "You can't pay me enough to stay here."