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The Onboarding Opportunity: Smarter Ways of Training New Hires Improve Retention
Better New Employee Training: Smart companies are going beyond traditional orientation to a longer approach and more hands-on training. Learn how these two packaging companies have improved retention through a better onboarding process.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 8/1/2018

You can’t go wrong by having a new employee onboarding program according to experts and company managers. Researchers suggest that employers with successful programs enjoy higher employee retention rates and lower turnover, higher levels of engagement, more open lines of communication, and lower injury rates. Since a good initial training environment can do so much for your company, why do so many businesses give it little thought?


Defining Onboarding and Orientation

What exactly is onboarding? That’s the transitional period that mostly takes place after employees are hired, covering the period until they become fully productive. Through the development of a proactive onboarding process, new employees are more likely to stick with the company, more quickly get up to speed, and blend in more harmoniously with the team.

Orientation, by comparison, is typically an early component of the longer onboarding process where new employees learn basics about the company, its policies and essential safety rules - often in a classroom setting. The important message here is that the job of bringing a new employee on board doesn’t finish with the orientation session. The onboarding process can take weeks or even months. Successful companies will us the onboarding process to connect new employees with more senior workers. During this time, managers may seek to understand new hires including their goals and what motivates them. 


Change in Orientation Approach Leads to Dramatically Improved Retentions

One packaging manufacturing company that has significantly improved its retention rate is MDI. Based in Minnesota, MDI manufactures standard and custom corrugated plastic products, and provides production assembly and environmental services.

In the past, MDI struggled with a higher staff turnover rate, but then the company made an important improvement after it put a trainer in place. Turnover has been reduced by roughly 30%.

“Our process is still not perfect,” commented Rod Wood, the company’s COO, “but it certainly helps.”

Prior to utilizing a trainer at MDI, new employees would come in and go through a day or two of orientation in the training room before hitting the plant floor. In addition to the basics, sales and quality departments would also make presentations. It was a lot to absorb.

“The short trainings were too intense,  there was no real time to absorb the info,” Wood explained.

The supervisor would  need to work harder to ensure employees were fully acclimated, while also running production. “The supervisors had their hands full. New employees had a lot to learn. For some, it might be  the first time they have been on the production floor, other than their pre-hiring walk-through.”

MDI has worked hard to improve its process and today its approach to orientation and onboarding is greatly improved. The initial orientation now takes a week, but it involves a variety of classroom and shop floor activities. Every day, multiple times per day, the trainer takes the new employees into the plant to learn corrugated plastic production jobs such as screen printing, operating a die cutter, and box assembly 

“One thing we have tried to do recently is to limit the amount of things we are giving them in the first day or two,” Wood said. “Now we have just cut it back to the basics. We try to get them out and working.” Once a month, newer employees are brought back to the classroom for additional training.

“Now, when they are handed off to the supervisor the next week, they have a really good grasp of the equipment they are going to run, and they’ve already been introduced to the people,” Wood said. “It is a better introduction to the workflow.”

Supervisors are also happier because new workers are more comfortable and knowledgeable when beginning their new job.  This approach has resulted in higher levels of satisfaction for the employee, the supervisor and the team, according to Wood.

MDI’s unique social enterprise model requires the organization to pay special attention to training practices. As a nonprofit organization, its mission is to serve people with disabilities by offering inclusive employment opportunities and services, with nearly half of its workforce comprised of people with disabilities.

All new employee’s go through the same orientation process, and those who may require additional support are offered assistance through Employment Services. Employment Services works closely with production staff to identify where employees may be most successful.


Oxford Pallet’s Approach to Onboarding Starts Even Before Hiring

Oxford Pallet & Recyclers Ltd has reduced its annual turnover rate from 50% annually to just 5% over the last few years. Its approach starts with providing a clear view of what it is like to work at a pallet company before new people start.

Theo Bouwheer, human resources director for Oxford, can relate. “Prior to working here, I didn’t know anything about pallets other than that you put stuff on them,” said Bouwheer. He came to the company after 23 years in the automotive industry. “It was an eye opener for me when I came to work here how much there is involved with them, and I think that is the same for a lot of people.”

New hires come into the business having no idea what is involved in the pallet business.

Bouwheer has discovered by taking the time to explain what goes on in a pallet manufacturing and recycling operation, new employees are better prepared.

“We have found that if we don’t fill them in, they won’t last,” he continued. “After a couple of days they will say, ‘Do you know what? This is not what I thought it was going to be. I’m out of here.’” 

The interview process runs from half hour to 45 minutes. Some candidates decide to decline a job after the interview process, which is preferable to hiring them first and then having them leave after the first few days.

The safety orientation at Oxford usually lasts two to three hours. It involves all of the necessary components required by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Orientation also includes coverage of site specific risks associated with Oxford Pallet.

After orientation, new employees are given a full tour of the plant, and then trained to sort pallets. The rationale behind pallet sorting as a first job, Bouwheer explained, is that the job is fairly straightforward to grasp. Additionally, new employees must learn to identify all of the different pallets that come through the facility. Usually, new employees stay with sorting for about three months. After that, they are allowed to switch to different positions such as forklift operator or pallet repair as they become available.

Pallet repair is a highly coveted position because it is based on piecework and repair workers can make lucrative incomes. When a newer worker is brought into the repair side, they keep their hourly rate until their production increases to the point where they can make more at the piece rate, and then the switch is made. This approach reduces any anxiety about losing pay while they are learning.

Oxford Pallet also manufactures new pallets. An alternate job path for new employees is to place them in the lumber sawing area for three months, before being eligible to take on more advanced duties operating pallet assembly equipment.

“You start by giving the new hire a good explanation of how the business works,” Bouwheer said. “I do that in the initial interview and tell them exactly how the business is run, so they are not coming into any surprises. Proceed with the classroom training and then get them into a part of the operation that is relatively simple. That is where they are going to learn the most. And then they can branch out from there. For us, that seems to work extremely well.”


Have an Onboarding Plan, and Pace the Learning

At both MDI and Oxford Pallet, an important part of the success has involved having a plan in place and managing the pace of the learning. This approach ensures that new employees don’t drown in content overload.

“We want people to be engaged, but we realize that being in the classroom for up to the first two full days is information overload,” Wood said. “Our focus now is to give them the tools they need and get them on the floor. Then start that process of bringing them back a little at a time. We are trying to spread it out and just give them the essential information up front.”

Managing the onboarding process can pay dividends. “I do know that pallet companies struggle with retention of their employees,” Bouwheer concluded. “But setting out a pattern for onboarding will definitely help. I firmly believe it has helped us.”

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