Creating a committed workforce

Retention has become a growing issue for businesses across the waste and recycling industry.

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As the country continues to rebound from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have found themselves slowly regaining ground with employee hiring. This is because of a mix of COVID unemployment benefits ending, high inflation rates and the rising cost of living in the country, says Mike Huycke, vice president of business development for Leadpoint Business Services, a recycling industry and workforce services company based in Phoenix.

“We’ve seen a pretty significant rebound in our hiring, and, in our experience, there are a lot of people wanting to come back to work,” Huycke says. “We are doing a lot of things differently in our recruiting that have significantly helped.”

However, while it appears hiring rates are increasing, retention has remained a constant issue for companies across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.2 million people quit their jobs in June.

Twenty-two percent of employees left their jobs in 2021 for career-related reasons, such as opportunities for growth, promotion, achievement or security, or to attend school, according to a report by the Work Institute, a Franklin, Tennessee-based organization specializing in employee retention. Issues related to job stress, the availability of resources, training, job characteristics, empowerment or products; work-life balance; and health and family were the next most-cited reasons for leaving a job, with each of these categories cited by 11 percent of respondents.

For some companies in the waste and recycling industry, improving employee retention begins with the hiring and onboarding process.

Getting a head start

For Huycke; Patti Hamilton, vice president of brand and culture at Coastal Waste, Pampano Beach, Florida; and Ernesto Valencia, plant manager for Diversified Recycling, East Hazel Crest, Illinois, hiring and training are particularly important. For them, the hiring process acts as an introduction to what tasks will be expected of prospective job candidates. Because of the unique and challenging work environment, providing a better understanding of the job before joining the company increases the likelihood that candidates will stay long after they are hired.

“Employees who are well-trained and well-supported are far more likely to stay with our company,” Huycke says. “For employee training at Leadpoint, it really does start at the hiring process.”

The goal is to build employees’ expectations and give them early insight into how the company works, the daily tasks required and the environment they will be working in.

During the interview process, Huycke says Leadpoint gives potential sorters and equipment operators a glimpse into what those roles entail.

Candidates are given a chance to try their hands at sorting on an actual line as part of the interview.

“The training environment shouldn’t be one-directional. It should be a collaborative environment [between] the company and the employee.” – Mike Huycke, VP of Business Development, Leadpoint Business Services

“By the time they are hired with our company, they have a good perspective on all of that,” Huycke says. “It’s considered part of our interview process, but it is the main component of our training process.”

Meanwhile, Valencia says Diversified takes potential employees on a tour of the facility before they’re hired. During the tour and interview process, he says job candidates can get answers to questions they have, such as what materials are being sorted and what risks are associated with the job.

Early exposure to job-related tasks is vital because the company wants candidates to understand their potential roles before accepting job offers, Valencia adds.

Hamilton echoes this sentiment, noting that beginning employee training during the hiring process builds an understanding of the company’s culture and an appreciation of the potential hire’s position within the company.

“We’re very deliberate and very intentional about our hiring,” Hamilton says. “We want to find people that want to be part of a growing team [and] that want to take the business as personally as we all do. We want them to take ownership of the role they play in the business because every single role is extremely important.”

Maintaining performance

Once the company has hired a new employee, the next step is formal training. Huycke says this provides another opportunity to ensure personnel stay at the company for the long run.

Sorters comprise the majority of Leadpoint’s workforce. For employees to feel job satisfaction, Huycke says, they “need to feel like they’re performing.” That’s why Leadpoint goes over how to identify materials on the sort line and what the different conveyor systems in the material recovery facility (MRF) do, what they’re called and how they fit together.

“This is all designed to make them feel safe, productive and supported so that they can do a good job and feel good,” Huycke explains. “We believe this helps with retention.”

Leadpoint also has introduced a new employee mentorship program. The program assigns an experienced co-worker to a new employee to show him or her the ropes, integrate the new hire into the MRF environment and answer questions he or she has. Huycke describes it as having a “friend at work.”

He says, “We have seen that having a mentor who takes time to get to know each new hire helps with retention and job satisfaction.”

Meanwhile, at Diversified Recycling, the first week on the job mostly consists of educational training. Valencia says new hires don’t start on the floor but instead take classes on safety standards in areas such as fire prevention and equipment. To reinforce the training, the company focuses on employee engagement and recognizes and rewards employees for following safety training.

Diversified Recycling also regularly buys employees lunches to acknowledge positive and safe actions, periodically rewards employees with $50 gift cards and allows extra time for breaks to ensure safe workplace practices. By rewarding employees for adhering to safety training, Valencia says it shows employees the company appreciates them.

In addition, Valencia says Diversified offers opportunities for personal growth. For example, the company offers to pay for English classes for employees for whom English is a second language, so they can speak with their co-workers and not feel isolated when working. While Diversified doesn’t currently offer a general education diploma (GED) program for employees who did not graduate from high school, Valencia says he would consider adding such a program if workers expressed interest.

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Differing approach

Valencia and Huycke say safety training goes a long way toward improving employee retention. A well-rounded safety program is one of the best things a company can do to help maintain a safe, supportive work environment. A poor safety program can undermine all other training programs a company has because safety is foundational to all of them, Huycke says.

After safety, he says helping sorters understand the prioritization of commodities based on recovery goals and market value is key, along with sorting techniques. Sorting techniques can improve pick counts and reduce the likelihood of dizziness and the feeling of being overwhelmed, he adds.

How long a company should train an employee depends on the role, Huycke says. For sorters, it might be two weeks working side-by-side with a mentor plus daily check-ins by the employee’s supervisor. For equipment operators or employees in specialized roles, the training program will be longer.

He says Leadpoint also conducts a 30-day one-on-one interview between the supervisor and the new employee to gauge how the associate feels he or she is doing.

Waste and recycling companies can tell if they have a successful training program based on the level of employee engagement on the job, Huycke says. Under-trained employees are more likely to disengage, which means they aren’t invested in the job, their employer or the overall success of the plant.

“If employees aren’t asking questions or aren’t invested in the training curriculum and environment, they don’t respond as well to the training itself,” he says. “The training environment shouldn’t be one-directional. It should be collaborative [between] the company and the employee to have the desired outcome.”

Valencia adds that a good training program means management always communicates with its employees and creates a positive environment where they feel supported.

The author is digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group. He can be reached at akamczyc@gie.net.

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