Training programs bring competitive advantage

August 21, 2012

From “Training programs see boost in drive for efficiency” — MENASHA — Dura-Fibre in Menasha is leaving no stone unturned when seeking a competitive advantage.

For more than a year, the maker of solid fiber paper board has put many of its managers and supervisors through assorted training on a variety of topics such as leadership skills, problem solving and effective communication.

It hasn’t stopped there. Those on the line also have received training and some have taken courses toward earning an associate degree at Fox Valley Technical College.

“The (business) environment is constantly changing, and if you want to grow you’re going to be challenging the status quo,” said Luke Benrud, director of operations at Dura-Fibre, which employs 60, including 45 union workers. The company has been receiving training through FVTC and plans more next year.

Dura-Fibre isn’t alone in embracing work force investment. Across the country, companies have shown more interest in finding ways to boost productivity from existing employers to limit or prolong the need to hire additional workers to control costs.

Lorrie Lynkins, managing editor and director of research services for the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity, said that historically learning and development is the first thing businesses either scale back or eliminate during a down economy.

But as businesses seek more cost savings and operational efficiencies, many are finding their workers need advanced training.

“Some companies will provide internal development while some will invest to develop the workers they have,” Lynkins said.

The hope is those workers will be less likely to change jobs, develop a stronger bond with their employer and eventually move into a leadership role, she said.

“Companies are looking more at developing their own talent,” Lynkins said.

Productivity up

The Labor Department this month reported U.S. companies saw a 1.6 percent annualized gain in productivity from workers between April and June. This follows a 0.5 percent decline during the January-to-March quarter.

Productivity is the amount of output per hour worked. Rising productivity generally means better corporate profits, but it also can mean slower job creation because it means companies are getting more from their current workers and don’t need to hire.

There are limits to how much companies can get from existing workers, experts say. Economists have said this trend is typical during and after a recession.

Companies tend to shed workers as demand falls and increase output from a smaller labor pool. But as the economy grows, hiring tends to increase.

Dale Walker, director of business and industry services at FVTC, said stagnant hiring patterns suggests regional employers are reluctant to add workers, though unemployment has steadily fallen since the recession ended in June 2009. The national jobless rate in June was 8.2 percent, while Wisconsin’s was lower at 7 percent.

Walker said regional businesses are inquiring about training to improve efficiencies.

“It could be production related or supervisory skills,” he said. Manufacturers are asking more about lean methodologies.

“People are looking for ways to run as efficiently as possible in many areas, not just on the production floor,” Walker said. This explains why there also is growing interest in information technology training and communication.

Efficiency everywhere

Workers across many industries are recognizing it’s increasingly important to keep skill sets current.

For the past 17 years, the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce & Industry has hosted the Christa McAuliffe Academy, a weeklong program where teachers from around the state are brought in to meet with a variety of business professionals to learn about the skills they seek in workers for today and the future.

This year’s academy, presented in July, had 150 participants, including some repeat attendees, said Mary Jane Grissman, who coordinates the program.

“At the chamber, we’re really trying to make a connection between the education system and our business partners,” Grissman said. “It’s a way to bring teachers and businesses together so we can close that skills gap.”

Teachers can see how basic skills such as math, science and communication apply in the working world.

FVTC’s Walker said customized or abbreviated training seems to be the preferred route for businesses. He said companies want training offered over a few hours, versus many weeks and days.

“Companies want training in a time frame that works for their needs,” he said. The college estimates 33,000 of the 53,000 people served at FVTC annually are receiving training through its business and industry programs.

The payoff

Lynkins said rapid technology advancements are placing more importance on training.

“Learning cycles are a lot shorter now than 15 years ago,” she said. “If you’re talking technology companies, they’re all about innovation, so companies have to constantly train people to market those products.”

Dura-Fibre’s Benrud said as dialogue between line supervisors and management improved, it became easier to implement production changes.

He said as workers on the floor saw their suggestions were being heard, a collaborative environment emerged.

“We wanted an environment where everyone recognizes where if they saw opportunities to improve our capabilities, we made it happen,” Benrud said. “We feel our employees see that management recognizes the skills they have and they have authority without having to rely on us to do something to solve a problem.”

Benrud said employees appreciate their opinions are being heard, which can also boost morale and workforce relations with management.

“They’re the ones on the machines and they have the ideas how to improve things,” he said.

When all levels of a business receive training and know how to collaborate effectively, dealing with change and implementing new processes can be less stressful, Benrud said.

“When you have any improvement project, but you have union representatives and front-line supervisors going through the same process, it just makes the buy-in that much easier,” he said.

“Everyone knows the biggest fight is the push back from those who will say, ‘We’ve been doing it this way for 25 years, so why change now?’ But when you change that mindset and everyone understands why something needs to be improved, it can keep the company growing and from there you get even more buy-in.”


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