Lately, General Cable Corp.'s Lincoln, R.I., manufacturing facility has been doing something that it hardly ever had to do for decades: hiring.

It's not that business had been slow. It's just that up until recently, hardly anybody ever left the wire-and-cable factory, which IndustryWeek named one of the magazine's 10 Best Plants for 2011.

Until a hiring spurt over the past 18 months, the plant just north of Providence was a poster child for the aging workforce in manufacturing.

When the facility applied for an IndustryWeek Best Plants award in early 2011, the average tenure among its 200 employees was 20-plus years, and 40% of the workforce had been employed at the facility for more than 30 years.

At the time, there wasn't a single first-shift employee with fewer than 30 years of experience.

The plant's turnover rate -- including retirements -- was around 1%.

Fast-forward to today. Over the past 18 months, the Lincoln plant has hired some 36 new associates to fill the void left by retirements, and the average tenure has dropped to 18 years, according to plant manager Michael Brown.

The facility has done so using a standardized process that plant leaders developed to ensure that new hires have the desired skills and characteristics of the plant's next-generation workforce.

What Does a New Associate Look Like?

In the past, the Lincoln plant might lose one or two employees every year, recalls human resources manager Mary Igoe. Whenever someone left, the plant would lean on its predominantly Portuguese workforce to find a replacement in its tightly knit community of relatives and friends.

That was before plant leaders saw the perfect storm on the horizon.

"About two years ago, we looked out to the next 10 years and saw that we were going to lose 10 to 15 people each year to retirement," Igoe says.

With 54% of the hourly workforce planning to retire or eligible to retire over the next several years, and the factory floor becoming increasingly high-tech, data-intensive and paperless, plant leaders realized they needed to develop a rigorous hiring process to find workers with the right skills and sensibilities.

They also saw a need for a structured on-boarding process, to ensure that new hires assimilate quickly into Lincoln's fast-paced work environment.

"The reality in Rhode Island is that about 10 years ago, the major of manufacturing plants left our area," Igoe says. "So we weren't going to be able to hire people with two and three years of wire-and-cable experience. We knew we were going to have to grow our own."

In coming up with a hiring strategy, plant leaders asked themselves: "What does a new associate look like?"

As they answered that question, they came up with four key attributes of a prototypical next-generation Lincoln associate -- a safety-first, computer-literate, mechanically inclined individual with a high school or GED diploma.

They added one other prerequisite: The applicant must be able to read and write in English.

"In the past, we really didn't have that many openings," Brown says. "We'd say, 'OK, here's an application,' and they'd go home and have their son or daughter or someone who is more fluent in English fill it out.

"Now the requirement is they have to [fill out the application] in the office, while they're here, by themselves. Because we want to make sure they can read our TOIs, our spec sheets and other instructions that they need to run the equipment."

Getting Into a Candidate's Head

The first interview includes written and oral questions designed to determine if the candidate indeed possesses the four key attributes -- a safety-first mentality, computer literacy, a mechanical aptitude and a high school or equivalent education.

The written portion of the interview includes the aforementioned employment questionnaire and the multiple-choice Wiesen Test of Mechanical Aptitude.

In addition, the interviewer asks a number of "situational" questions based on the candidate's background and history, Brown explains, noting that the plant emphasizes a safety principle called "Consequence Thinking."

"We had an individual who was in the Army and also was a bouncer on the side. One of the questions we asked him was about his most difficult situation as a bouncer," Brown says.

"As he walked us through the situation, we asked him how he reacted to it. He said 'I didn't want to get kicked out of the Army if I handled the situation [too aggressively] or if I aggravated the guy,' so he walked us through how he thought about the hazards and the potential outcomes of the situation.

"And so now you're getting into his head. You're getting a feel for whether he's going to think about the consequences of his actions or whether he's going to be oblivious to it. So you start getting an understanding of how they think."

Round 2

For every job opening, Igoe explains, the plant brings in as many as eight people for first interviews. After the first round of interviews, human resources checks their references and invites the three best candidates to return for a second round of interviews -- at a later date -- with supervisors and associates.

"And the reason that we bring in three is a lot of our guys want their family members to be part of our plant, so we want to make sure that one, they're given the opportunity, but two, they recognize that's it's not just automatic," Igoe explains.

In Round 2, the candidates walk the factory floor and meet with manufacturing manager John Tremblay and his team, who make a final recommendation on which candidates to hire.

With General Cable being the only wire-and-cable plant in the Providence area now -- a former American Insulated Wire Corp. plant packed up and moved to Georgia several years ago -- Brown notes that the plant hasn't been hiring "wire-and-cable people."

"We have mechanics, we have carpenters, we have a gentleman on the packaging line who just returned from Iraq," Brown says.

That might not be such a bad thing.

"I think if we do it right, and these people are willing to learn and are capable, and they're mechanically inclined, we can train them way we train them and they're not bringing bad habits from somewhere else -- say another wire-and-cable company."

This is Part 1 in a two-part series. In the next article, we'll look at General Cable Lincoln's on-boarding process for new hires.

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