Emphasis on Ergonomics, Frequent Communication, and Social Media Helps Durham Pallet Services Engage and Retain Employees
Overcoming Labor Challenges: Canadian pallet company finds solutions in better workplace conditions, employee communication and social media recruitment strategies.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 3/1/2018
Like many companies in the Durham region in Ontario, Durham Pallet Services has struggled for years to retain staff members, especially Millennial workers. Jason Nitchie, president of Durham Pallet Services (DPS), explained that the DPS workforce spans Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennial as well as iGen segments, with the Millennial component being the largest.
Learning to understand the workforce and its priorities has been a process for Nitchie, who began with DPS as a pallet repair employee in October 2001. He was the company’s third employee. In 2004, Nitchie was promoted to plant manager. Then in 2007, owner Stewart Richardson offered Nitchie a partnership in the firm. Today, DPS processes 60,000 rental pallets weekly as a third-party depot provider. It runs with a staff of over 60 employees, operating from a 42,000-square-foot building in Whitby, Ontario.
There was a time when Nitchie, a self-proclaimed Gen Xer, said he struggled to understand why his management approach worked well with some employees but fell flat with others. “We missed the signs due to our age and attitude,” Nitchie said. “We needed to have a different mindset to try and correct the high turnover rates. What works for me doesn’t work for others.”
For example, Nitchie noted that Baby Boomers tend to seek job security, while Gen X employees probably are looking for more money. Millennials tend to respond to a better work environment while iGen members enjoy flexible schedules.
After taking time to more fully grasp the generational differences, Nitchie and the DPS management team discovered what improvements could dramatically improve staff engagement and retention. “If you can incorporate all needs, your workforce will be strong,” he said.
Nitchie cautioned, however, that not all generational stereotypes are true, such as the one which purports that Millennials do not want to work. Nitchie explained, “Millennials do want to work and will work well provided they have the proper equipment and surroundings.” He added, “I was used to repairing off a stack of pallets; now they prefer a tool balancer and an actual metal table to repair on. It has made for a better work environment for all.”
More Frequent Communications
One of the things that the company came to learn is that the younger workforce generally appreciates more frequent feedback about performance, as well as the opportunity to offer ideas. Nitchie provides his cell number to staff and regularly receives text messages. Comment cards are also available to team members for sharing ideas and feelings. Suggestions ranged from simple things such as installing a vending machine to more complex and expensive items such as better inbound gravity rollers.
In the past, if employees had an issue, Nitchie joked, the response might have been a curt suggestion to go find a job somewhere else. Now if someone has a concern, the company strives to maintain an active listening approach. It is more like, “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”
“If you can understand your workforce, and recognizing most of that workforce is Millennials now, everything will come together,” Nitchie said.
Attention to Ergonomics
One of the concerns that surfaced had to do with the physical demands of the repair work. It was a perspective which set DPS on a path towards a series of equipment investments to improve plant ergonomics. In 2015, the company installed a high-speed pallet inspection line from Industrial Resources. Then at the beginning of 2017, the repair stations were upgraded with Bishamon lift tables. Stacks of repair pallets are moved by forklift from the inspection line stacker to the repair infeed rolls, and then to the repair tables. Pallet repairers now work at table height, and the need for bending has been eliminated. Tool balancers also help eliminate strain.
“The production numbers are not necessarily higher versus traditional ways, but we are seeing the benefits of having a happier, less exhausted workforce,” Nitchie said, an outcome which he believes plays a role in keeping people happy and less inclined to look for another job.
Attention to Safety and Training
When asked if the new equipment had reduced workers compensation claims, Nitchie explained that the investment was more to improve the workplace environment. Compensation claims had already been minimal. They have averaged only one claim per year over the last five years. DPS has had an active health and safety program for several years, including a full-day orientation for new workers, a week of working alongside an experienced employee, and annual training update and signoff.
Another successful program has been the reporting of “near misses.” Cases are documented and posted in the lunchroom. “Employees are never disciplined for reporting a near miss because we encourage this process and want others to be able to learn how to prevent accidents,” Nitchie stated. As evidence of its success, DPS has never had a similar accident, nor even a subsequent similar near miss, after one has been reported.
The company also actively promotes management development through the provision of training courses, and proudly lists the training and certifications completed by each of its front-line managers on its website.
DPS selects courses offered by the Ontario Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) as well as from the local college. They include topics such as time management and conflict negotiations. “We use these courses to help make us more productive, eliminating waste and increasing our communication skills as a team,” he said.
Social Media as a Retention Tool
While social media is often used as a marketing tool and increasingly as a recruitment aid, the goal of the recent DPS entry into the world of social media has been largely focused around increasing engagement with its workforce. “Our people want to be able to show their friends and parents where they work,” Nitchie said. “Social media is paramount in the Millennial generation.”
Armed with this insight, DPS created a new website, and began to actively engage in social platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The company has also posted two YouTube videos demonstrating the basics of pallet repair and how to repair a nine-block pallet.
“We post everything we can on our social media,” Nitchie elaborated. “We also encourage staff to do the same as long as it is tasteful. We want everyone to see what DPS is actually about. We measure by likes and shares.” DPS currently has a 4.8 out of 5 rating on both Facebook and Google.
And social media isn’t just online. Going social also involves communicating with the community at large. The company recently launched its Ambassador Program. DPS gives participating staff members a windshield sticker with information about how to connect with the company. They sign an agreement to be spokespersons for the company and respond to anyone who might see the sticker and ask them about it.
“Our staff wants to be able to show how they contribute,” Nitchie said, “and our social media efforts are a part of that effort. The website and everything we have done haven’t cost a lot of money, but have been received favorably and made a big difference. We are really happy with the progress being made.”
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Overcoming Labor Challenges