Automation Needs 'The Right Stuff'

Jan. 1, 2002
A modern employee selection plan helps put the right workers in the right place to reduce the costs of replacing workers trained to run your material handling and manufacturing automation.

How do you profit from using manufacturing automation? By finding the right people to back it up, from chairman to machine operator. Yet, few companies seem ready with a plan for hiring until the economy — or disaster — calls for it.

What about you and your top management team? Have you thought about your succession and theirs? It’s amazing how few companies in manufacturing today are really ready with a plan for either plant floor hiring that goes beyond want ads or top management succession issues. Even fewer are ready at both ends, notes a manufacturing marketing firm, TR Cutler Inc., Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Of the manufacturing companies formed between 1960 and 1980 — some 75 percent of all companies in the U.S. — only 14 percent have a succession plan for their founders. Thomas R. Cutler, president and CEO of TR Cutler, calls that an example of “functioning on short-term mode.”

However, he continued, it’s “encouraging ... that 72 percent of those without a succession plan said they would have one in place within the year.” That would be right about now.

An employment agency or a headhunter won’t fill your leadership void. Neither will they find you the right workers for the plant unless you sharpen your expectations. Today’s production jobs require a completely different type of person and skill set than years ago. And, today’s hiring and firing issues come wrapped in potential litigation, involving government agencies ranging from the EEOC to OSHA.

Being ready for labor crisis communications is one of your job requirements. Adds Cutler, “With most manufacturers operating on the thinnest of margins, the cost of litigation is deadly to small or midsize manufacturers. Defending just one minor employee or customer lawsuit can cost between $80,000 and $125,000.” Other costs such as reputation and your own peace of mind are incalculable, he adds.

There are many testing systems in use and being developed here and abroad to minimize problems ranging from finding appropriate workers to finding just the right leadership qualities. One such comes from Employers Association Inc. (EA), Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Called MAPS for Manufacturing Applicant Profile System, the new battery of tests is the results of three years of research work by EA and Discovery Enterprises, a consulting firm also in Minneapolis, Joe Spartz, EA senior manager explains to MHM.

“We believe companies using MAPS as part of a thorough employee selection program will see their hiring results improve and substantially reduce costs related to poor employee selection,” Spartz notes. Average costs for replacing a production worker are between $5,000 and $10,000, EA says.

What EA and Discovery did was observe and analyze numerous workers at manufacturing firms in the Midwest. They then developed three batteries of tests for three different categories of plant work. These are assemblers, machine operators, and product and material handlers. Each of these is tested in terms of “basics” and psychological types. Tests per potential hire take between 45 minutes and one hour, according to Spartz.

“Our tests were researched in conventional and high-tech, high-automation plants. We have found that the core competencies of all are the same,” explains Spartz. That is, “you’re trying to find types of people who work well in groups and are able to learn.”

Other types of tests specialize in other aspects of modern manufacturing shop floor needs “such as those that entail only working on a keyboard,” he adds. However, what all manufacturing employee search tests are seeking are people who can work well in a production environment today.

What business owners are looking for, of course, are “model” or “ideal” employees. “These kinds of tests, based upon employer needs and industrial history, are designed to seek those employees, in material handling for example, who will work more accurately, more conscientiously, and with fewer errors, and who are more safety conscious,” he adds.

The manufacturing economy’s slump is temporary, but the issue of finding appropriate and productive employees is permanent. Yet, the issue that seems to get most management attention these days is the attainment of a quick ROI from automation. It is more and more clear that the real means to that end is having the “right stuff” in the factory — and in the head office — to make the automation systems successfully fulfill their promise. Having a hiring plan ready — for every job — is a step toward that success.

Editor’s note: Reach Spartz by e-mail at [email protected]. Contact Cutler at [email protected].

George Weimer, contributing editor, [email protected]

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