Adhesive coatings manufacturer FLEXcon doesn’t just make sticky products—its employees generally want to stick around, too. A whopping 83% of FLEXcon workers can claim more than 10 years of tenure. They like the family atmosphere and stability at the 60-year-old company, which grew from humble beginnings as a maker of laminates for women’s handbags into a 1,000-person operation that counts NASA as a client.
But fidelity also has its downsides. Around 2010, “we became very concerned about folks retiring and us having a knowledge gap,” says Christine LaPalme, vice president of corporate communications and human resources.
FLEXcon’s location in sleepy Spencer, Mass, didn’t help matters. Monks seem to like the area—residents include a Trappist community that prays, contemplates and makes jams and jellies. But recent college graduates tend to prefer Boston or New York.
“It’s not easy to recruit out here,” admits LaPalme. And once recruited, most associates “want to go to the big city” after they’ve worked a few years.
For the company to stay healthy, says LaPalme, leadership needed to do some serious thinking about how to keep millennials happy and engaged. They read a book called Managing the Millennials and fashioned an immersive training program for new hires, freshly graduated from science programs at nearby universities.
In the 12- to 18- month class, these "development associates” rotate through every department. They receive specialized instruction from leadership and perform hands-on projects to get a good handle on the company’s culture, processes and opportunities.
Training can include six weeks on the production floor, “working in a uniform right alongside a production worker loading the machine with pressure sensitive material,” says LaPalme. The rookies learn how to apply adhesive coating and talk about the chemistry and environmental issues. “And then they see the product come off the end of the machine and they work in slitting and finishing.”
They even spend a week in the marketing and communications department, “so they know how we position the product and what tactics we use, whether it’s PR or our website.”
The program, which has since been adapted for sales and production staff, has helped boost retention. Five years on, 25% of the first class remains at FLEXcon, 50% of the second, and 60% of the third. “We consider that a real success,” says LaPalme.
Those percentages become more significant when you consider that in their first 10 years on the job, millennials on average switch jobs four times, according to a 2016 Linkedin study. And that in 2015, millennials surpassed Generation Xers to become the largest generation currently in the U.S. workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
These days, even a large manufacturing company that can offer a higher-than-average salary and the promise of interesting work must devote more resources to retention, says John Heyliger, director of talent acquisition at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
Lockheed now moves its knowledge workers to front and center more quickly—so they get to use the coolest technology and work on high-profile projects like laser jet prototypes and Mars missions. No longer must they labor in mundane, behind-the-scenes roles until they become more seasoned, says Heyliger.
Anna Malachias, a manufacturing engineer hired at Lockheed fresh out of Louisiana State University a year ago, is already working on the mechanical assembly for the crew module on the Orion Project, NASA’s deep-space exploration spacecraft. A self-described space junkie, she’s a fan of Lockheed’s on-site medical clinic and the fact that she gets every other Friday off, but what she likes the most is doing work “that matters and motivates me.
“Pieces of hardware that will go to Mars or carry astronauts, that’s pretty extraordinary,” she says.
David Milbourne, Alcoa’s vice president of talent management, told the crowd at a recent Brookings Institution forum on advanced manufacturing that the key to a successful retention plan, “is to give people the opportunity to move around and try different things in the company. Otherwise, they’ll find it elsewhere.”
For instance, says Milbourne, Alcoa recently had an intern who was focused on the auto industry and thought he might like to try working in aerospace. The company supported his move to jet engine component testing.
“He actually developed an acoustic signature to identify cracks in the surrounding casting using technology from the auto industry,” says Milbourne.
“Just by moving that individual from one part of the business to the other, the savings from a cost, time and customer expectation perspective were huge.”
Solutions for Smaller Companies
MBX Systems, which manufactures network server appliances in Libertyville, Ill., can’t send its millennials on glamorous overseas assignments or encourage them to move to a new division. With 140 employees, the company only has one division. But that hasn’t stopped Jill Bellak, MBX’s president, from actively looking for ways to keep her younger workers happy. Flexible schedules for the software development and front-office staff, and opportunities for cross-training and time off to work on Habitat for Humanity projects resonate with this group. That correlates with Pew research on millennials that finds that workers in this generation thrive on learning, growing and having a mission, not just a job.
“We really work hard to make sure that our employees feel like they’re a part of something bigger than turning a screwdriver,” says Bellak, who has a 27-year-old son and says that differences between the millennial workforce and their precursors are “absolutely, 100%” real.
“What we’ve seen is that this generation really does need to feel very engaged. It’s not the punch in and punch out, go home, don’t think about it generation. They have a lot of energy. A lot of ideas. We’re not fighting that--we’re embracing it and looking at ways to leverage that.”
At MBX, workers can take their ideas right to upper management and if they’re good, see them fast-tracked. Bellak laid the groundwork for this by stipulating that every new employee, during the first few weeks, gets a 15-minute meeting with every member of the company’s executive management team.
Not only is it a good bonding experience and a gesture saying “you’re valued here,” says Bellak, it’s a way for management to see what kind of future the new employee might have at the company, and help plant a seed.
“If they’re hired in the warehouse, but they’ve had sales experience in the past and they’re interested in human resources or the supply chain, I can say, ‘When the time comes, here’s the woman or man to talk to,’” says Bellak. “They find out what the criteria might be, and it already starts them thinking about growth.”
Bellak, whose company this year was one of Fortune magazine’s Top 15 Best Places to Work in Manufacturing and Production, also started a book club. She and MBX’s senior talent recruiter, Kim Becker, lead the group. All new hires, as well as current employees changing jobs within the company, are part of the club for three consecutive months. Production line workers, software developers and directors sit side by side and share their impressions of the book, aptly titled The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting up to Speed Faster and Smarter.
“It’s so collaborative and cool,” Bellak says. “We bring in lunch. We laugh a lot.”
A community garden plot for employees, located in a field across from the plant, also helps break down barriers. Recently a young employee came up to Bellak with some ways to move the company’s green initiative forward.
“He had some really cool ideas,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Do you want to organize our green team?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that would be fun.’
“You have to have an open mind to what’s important to them,” she adds. “That’s the key, right?’”