Drawing on the strength of people

How one stamper is breaking the rules, retaining quality employees

STAMPING Journal March/April 2003
April 10, 2003
By: Art Hedrick

During the recent economic downturn, sheet metal stampers, die shops, and some job shops experienced layoffs and some closed their doors. However, a few stampers have remained profitable despite uncertain economic times.

When faced with a financial crunch, many companies react by immediately cutting employees and nixing training programs. While these cutbacks may fix the problems in the short term, they may create even bigger problems in the long term, such as employee turnover, decreased efficiency, and poor quality.

The industry is plagued with high employee turnover rates and a lack of qualified personnel. To combat these trends, some successful stampers are continuing to invest in training programs and create positive corporate cultures.

More than ever, quality employees can make or break a shop. If employees aren't well-trained, motivated, and encouraged to grow, a company may never realize its true potential.

Train to Retain

For the past 20 years stamper ITW Drawform, Zeeland, Mich., has been building a strong training program and a thriving corporate culture. The company's commitment to training is apparent through its ability to retain quality employees and produce complicated deep-drawn stampings that many shops can't.

By keeping their technical skills sharp, the company's employees have managed to create a profitable niche in an unstable economy.

"We manufacture very difficult stampings and have found that training our own people works well for us. Our customers keep raising the bar, and we have to keep up with technical advances to meet market pressures," said Annette Meengs, the company's training coordinator.

One way the company trains its staff is through an ongoing apprenticeship program. This is one way carded toolmakers can give back to the trade-by training someone else, Meengs said. The in-house training also teaches journeymen all aspects of the plant to help them better understand all facets of the business.

The company has taken a complete opposite stance of many manufacturers that have adopted the attitude that they can't afford to train their press operators because they will then leave for a higher-paying job. "By investing in training, we don't usually lose people because they respect and understand what we do," Meengs said.

In 2002 the stamper invested in 4,000 hours of in-house training together with 8,000 hours of outside training.

"Our employees are the future of the company. We encourage them to learn new skills by attending seminars and adult education courses, such as a basic machine shop class held at the local college. The more our operators know, the more valuable they become," Meengs said.

Corporate Culture Checkup

Despite what many managers may believe, money is not the main motivator that keeps talent from leaving. A key way to retain good employees is to establish a corporate culture that internally drives them to do their best.

Everyone is more productive, creative, and committed when they work in an environment that serves basic human needs. This is more than providing a clean and safe environment.

Meengs recommends thinking in terms of a corporate culture that fosters individual recognition, praise, project ownership, challenges, opportunity, fair wages, and a part in the decision-making process.

When companies do provide training, they usually focus on teaching employees how to operate a new piece of equipment. The success of an organization does not rely solely on the technical ability of its employees, but on their ability to communicate technical information effectively, Meengs commented.

At the company, all training is offered to everyone regardless of their position. In 2002 Meengs focused on coaching to hone the leadership skills of journeymen ready to train apprentices.

Many companies offer such training only to upper management. Meengs said, "We don't exclude-all training is for any employee who wants to learn.

"We have very skilled toolmakers, but not everyone is a natural trainer," Meengs said. "I held a train-the-trainer class to help our toolmakers become better communicators. They have to be able to relate instructions and information in a clear way."

Training Plan

To increase production efficiency, Drawform developed an extensive press operator training program. Some of the training is taught on the shop floor and some in a classroom environment. All classes are offered to employees at no cost.

"We hire operators who are smart but sometimes lack a manufacturing background," said Meengs. "They need to be able to use gauging equipment, micrometers, calipers, indicators, and read blueprints. Most people don't know how to use this equipment or how to properly read a blueprint."

When setting up the criteria, Meengs focused on key skills operators need to perform their jobs well:

  1. Blueprint reading
  2. Geometric dimensioning and tolerancing
  3. Statistical process control (SPC)
  4. Precision measuring instrument reading
  5. Die setup
  6. Fundamentals of stamping dies, feeders, and presses
  7. Material science
  8. Leadership

It Pays to Train

Unfortunately, many companies, when faced with a financial crisis, first cut the very things that can add to the bottom line. Areas that are hard to measure, such as training, usually are the first to go.

"We perform pre- and post-testing for technical training areas," Meengs said. "Tracking production matrices related to training is difficult, so we track certain key measurable areas in the company-for example, production standards, safety through audits, on-time delivery, setup times, downtime, and customer complaints."

By tracking these key areas, Meengs is able to quantify what training is effective and where changes need to be made. The tracking also helps the company set internal improvement goals, such as reducing downtime or improving setup times.

Training for the Future

Many companies focus on being more competitive by purchasing newer, faster, high-tech equipment when their true competitive advantage lies with their employees, untapped perhaps because of a lack of training or a poor corporate culture.

Although high-tech equipment can add to the bottom line, all of the technology in the world cannot replace the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit. Realizing this often buried potential means creating a working culture in which employees are internally motivated to excel.

"By constantly training our employees, we are able to accept work that many shops say can't be done," Meengs said. "Those accounts are growing our shop. Our employees, the training programs, and our corporate culture are the foundation of our success."

Art Hedrick

Art Hedrick

Contributing Writer
Dieology LLC
8730 10 Mile Rd. SE.
Rockford, MI 49341
Phone: 616-894-6855
Author of the "Die Science" column in STAMPING Journal®, Art also has written technical articles on stamping die design and build for a number of trade publications. A recipient of many training awards, he is active in metal stamping training and consulting worldwide.

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STAMPING Journal is the only industrial publication dedicated solely to serving the needs of the metal stamping market. In 1987 the American Metal Stamping Association broadened its horizons and renamed itself and its publication, known then as Metal Stamping.

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