Seek Advantage in Workforce Transitions

How ABB managers are turning retirements, skill gaps, and other workforce challenges into new performance and wellness gains.

By Jim Montague

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It's easy to talk about turning disadvantages into advantages, but it's something else again to actually do it.

Accelerating retirements, scarce or untrained rookies, wrenching technical shifts and healthcare issues are causing more upheaval than ever before in process control, automation, power and other industries, and solving these epic problems can seem insurmountable at times.

Well, four experts from ABB and its Baldor Electric Co. division showed how they're taking on these challenges, and finding useful solutions and ways to improve their workforces despite these difficult environments. They presented their experiences in a panel discussion, "How a Changing Workforce Can Uncover Opportunities," today at ABB Automation & Power World in Houston.

Unsurprisingly, one of the common themes in their stories was that more and more honest interpersonal communications can go a long way to solving difficult workforce problems, and even make technical challenges and healthcare issue easier to resolve.

Starting with safety

"Several years ago, we took on and reexamined safety because we were having more incidents that should have been reasonably happening, and we found that our safety issues were going beyond technical fixes," said Herbert Grant, vice president and general manager of ABB's Dry-Type Transformers NAM division. "So, we hired a safety director, turned much of the safety effort over to staff, and instilled an employee-led safety culture. Our 28-member team includes new hires to the general manager, and recently won OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Safety Star award."

Carolina Schwegler, managing director for operational excellence and quality for ABB's Drives and Controls and Discrete Automation and Motion divisions, reported that ABB's New Berlin, Wis., plant was recently interviewed by OSHA for VPP star certification in its services area, and this allowed it to look more closely at how staffers were engaged in the company's safety process. "Employees are no longer afraid to bring up safety issues to their teams, and this recently resulted in zero lost time in the facility, and helped bring us down to 1.5% lost time overall," said Schwegler.

Chris Hoyle, product manager for Baldor's general-purpose and severe-duty motors, said, "Previously, it wasn't uncommon for us to have 20-25 accidents per week, but we began with communications, and implemented a process of staff bringing problems to managers, so they could address them more quickly. As a result, we've gone through 12 million man-hours without an accident."

Hoyle added that Baldor adopted its Behavior-Based Safety Initiative to encourage even closer communications. "We used to think many accidents were just unavoidable flukes, but we found they were usually the result of bad processes, bad management or bad habits, and so we developed a list of 10 things to always do and 10 things to never do, which have also helped improve safety."

Emulating experience

While these and other safety programs are aiding manufacturing operations, many companies have appeared to be at the mercy of aging and retiring workforces. However, the panel reported that better communications can help solve this problem as well.

"I thought one third of my employee base was over 55 years old, but I recently discovered that it's actually closer to 50%," explained Schwegler. "So, we've created task-based teams, in which experienced individuals are working with just-out-of-college employees or those with just two or three years of experience. They share knowledge and best practices and document processes, so the inexperienced employees can learn how we do things, how our products are used in industry, and think through the best ways to do tasks."

Hoyle reported, "Most of our staff has more than 20 years experience, and they're also dealing with some physical constraints, especially when handling large frame sizes. So, we've added lift-assist devices on our machining centers. We also use a detailed shop-floor manufacturing system, so we don't need to rely on tribal knowledge as much. The goal is to make training quicker, but also make it easier to handle outdated equipment, for example, by incorporating the trick that a veteran guy knows about how to get a shaft into tolerance on a CNC machine."    

Grant added that many of his colleagues have 30 years experience, and so they're also looking at retirement soon. "We document and try to share tribal knowledge, but the best way to do it is in dialog with veteran experts, and having new employees shadow them on rotations."

Recruiting, retaining rookies

Even more difficult than passing on crucial know-how is the challenge of recruiting, hiring and retaining new employees in the first place. "Seeking engineering talent is very difficult these days—and not just operations engineers, but in R&D, too," explained Schwegler. "And the right individual might not be local or even in the country, and so we may also need to look at relocating them. We also look at larger pools of candidates who could be trained to fit into the roles we need. In the past, we and other employers looked at finding people with the perfect skill sets. Now, we also ask ourselves what do we actually need them to do, and the answer may not be what they did before."  

Grant reported that ABB's transformer facility in Bland, Va., partners with local communities and regional colleges, such as nearby Virginia Tech, to help find the new people it needs. "We host 20-30 seniors from Virginia Tech for capstone projects in our facility and work with local and regional community boards to help seek solutions for larger problems. And, though nepotism is seen as bad in many instances, we like bringing in the next generations of families to work, and we're even three and four generations deep in some cases. Parents are proud when they can bring their grown kids into a job, and the kids are proud to be there."

Filling skills, leadership gaps   

Once new staff is onboard or when existing employees need new skills, the next job is to give them the abilities they'll need.

"The biggest skill gap we see in our plant is in machining and especially CNC machining, and so we're working on growing our own. In fact, we reached out to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and built a two-class program with them, which our employees can attend," said Hoyle. "This gives us a pool of about 20-25 machinists that we can have in place and ready, but we need more, so we also built an in-house training program that brings the university to our plant. We received donated machines and added programming for our parts, so students can learn on the machines and software they'll use everyday. This in-house program just started, but we're also expanding it to our winding applications. We wanted to use a local school because they can conduct tests and make sure students will be a good match to their new positions."

To nurture new leaders and new skills, Granted reported that ABB also seeks to instill more leadership and human relationship skills. "We looked at ABB's leadership programs, but we also recognized that we needed an in-house program. So, we developed an eight-week course based on the book Monday Morning Leadership Lessons, which stresses how to communicate with people, and how to let them know what's expected of them."

Staying balanced

Beyond recruiting and training, Schwegler added it's also crucial for employees to maintain a good work-life balance, and so ABB strives to inform staff about exercise and wellness best practices. "Our new safety officer promotes getting up and stretching, and not sitting all the time, and so we're doing that, too," she said.

Hoyle added, "We have a wellness program, including a $400 incentive for getting a health screening. It originally had about 30-40% participation. So, we began talking about health in our monthly plant meetings, stressed that health was also something they needed to do for their families, and got participation up to about 80%, which helps the company's costs as well. Next, we're reaching out to the dependents of our employees because, while we have 6,000 staff, we actually have a total of 16,000 covered lives."