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Gain and retain: creating a rewarding culture for employees

Feature | December 6, 2019 | By:

Today’s tight labor market can turn employees fickle, posing challenges for companies that need to maintain a strong and skilled workforce. But with the right approach—and good benefits and wages—employers can keep ‘em coming back.

by Pamela Mills-Senn

An associate guides a customer through Milliken’s Innovation Gallery located at its global headquarters, the Roger Milliken Center in Spartanburg, S.C. Showcased in the gallery are the company’s many high-performance textiles providing solutions to a broad spectrum of industries. Photo: Milliken & Company. 

After spending 18 years as an employee, Chris Ritsema, owner of Holland, Mich., Canvas Innovations LLC, knew what kind of work experience he wanted his own staff to have. In business for 13 years, the company primarily serves the marine industry, providing enclosures, upholstery, covers/tops, flooring and more, also offering products to commercial markets. From the beginning, Ritsema created a culture where employees feel valued and could see advancement possibilities. 

“We’re very much about being a career-oriented company,” Ritsema explains. “When we hire, we mention we’re looking for career-minded folks, not those who are just looking for a job. We want those who have a bent for the industry and a love for what they do.”

Ritsema helps people plan for their future with the company. New hires are reviewed at 30, 60 and 90 days. Then, after about a year, he works with the employee on developing his or her goals and career path. Career paths for all employees are reviewed two or three times annually—it’s important to give people a vision for their future, Ritsema explains.

Canvas Innovations offers health care and a SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees Individual Retirement Account) to which it contributes. Birthdays are celebrated, as is the end of summer with a group outing. Personal achievement is recognized and rewarded. Ritsema also identifies employees interested in continuing education and skills advancement, offering opportunities for both, including attending regional trade shows. He regularly updates staff on where the company has been, where it is currently and where it’s going so employees know he wants to grow the business—very motivating to employees, he explains. Ritsema has also implemented a transparent tiered wage system so everyone understands what’s required to advance to a different wage level. As a result of these and other measures, Ritsema says turnover for his staff  (which numbers around 10 or so) has averaged about 10 percent or less.

Minnesota Knitting Mills considers its people to be its number-one asset. The company offers competitive salaries and benefits, cross-training for full-time employees and10-hour shifts four days a week. Here, team members position fabric in the lay up and finishing department, cutting it into bands and collars for outerwear jackets. Photo: Minnesota Knitting Mills.

The labor reality

Companies face numerous obstacles when trying to attract and maintain a dependable, motivated workforce. This is especially true for manufacturers like specialty fabricators.

“There are few people who think of sewing in a canvas shop as a career choice,” says Amy Poe, co-owner of Wyckam LLC, a Portland, Ore., provider of solutions for projects requiring industrial sewing. The company employs two full-time workers in addition to Poe and her partner.

“Most people want to ‘have an experience’ working at a sail loft/canvas shop. But we’re looking for long-term hires, so finding the right candidate is crucial,” says Poe. “And we almost always have to teach the skills—the people who are already trained usually already have jobs.”

The low unemployment rate exacerbates the challenge at the very time the need for highly skilled workers is increasing, says Craig Haydamack, senior vice president, human resources, Milliken & Company. Located in Spartanburg, S.C., Milliken offers research, design and manufacturing expertise across a variety of disciplines, including performance and protective textiles, floor coverings and more. The company employs more than 7,000 associates worldwide.

“Take upstate South Carolina,” says Haydamack. “There are a number of manufacturers in the region, all requiring a trained labor force. When all these companies are competing for what is a relatively small number of candidates, it can be challenging to attract and retain associates.”

Patrick Hickey, managing director, Minnesota Knitting Mills Inc. (MKM), says MKM is also feeling the tight labor pinch. The St. Paul, Minn., knit manufacturing company provides finished knit products and parts worldwide, serving an array of markets including military, medical, outdoor retail, fashion apparel and professional sports.

MKM flexes employment as needed, with numbers ranging from 50 to 100 employees—although it maintains a “solid core” of highly skilled workers having a minimum of 10 years of experience. Overall turnover is less than 20 percent. 

 “Over the past few years when unemployment rates have been at 3 percent or less, finding part-time members has been difficult,” Hickey says. “For the past two years, MKM has worked actively with outreach programs of Dakota County in the State of Minnesota. These programs bring in young people to tour facilities, ask questions and get a feel for what MKM is all about.” 

Making the shop a friendly place to work and learn encourages Wyckam’s employees to tackle new challenges. The company handles lots of varied projects, such as this mooring cover for a Thistle sailboat, being worked on by team member Mark Coats. The sewing machine is recessed into the floor to allow for easier sewing and handling of large covers and sails. Photo: Wyckam LLC.

Finding, attracting, inducing

At MKM, the best referrals often come from current employees or word of mouth, says Hickey. This is the case for most employers. In fact, Ritsema says he’s recruited about two-thirds of his staff in this way. Still, there are other resources, such as temp agencies, online job posting sites and social media.

Jaclyn Kirkwood, vice president of operations for Goodwin-Cole Company Inc., uses a temp agency, as well as postings on Facebook, Craigslist and Instagram. She also reaches out to military-affiliated job placement companies and recruiters. Headquartered in Sacramento, Calif., the company custom-designs shade products including drop-roller shades and awnings, fabric window shade coverings, and ornamental iron and metal awnings. The company’s hiring is complicated by its stringent background requirements—implemented because employees work in people’s homes—which can be a barrier to recruiting, Kirkwood says.  

Goodwin-Cole currently has 24 employees, with turnover hitting around 8 percent, a stability achieved thanks in part to the company’s effort to pay good wages. Amy Poe has also found it necessary to offer a higher starting wage to attract workers. Wyckam had to raise its prices as a result, but Poe says the market has tolerated this.  Other inducements include allowing employees to take personal time off when needed and providing vacation and sick time—benefits Poe describes as “basic necessities” in today’s labor market.

For Milliken, providing professional development opportunities, along with a menu of other benefits, has proven essential for attracting employees, says Haydamack, explaining that today’s workers want to be actively engaged and challenged. Candidates are also interested in companies exhibiting a strong sense of social responsibility.

“They want to join companies that share their personal values and display a commitment to doing business the right way,” he says. “When recruiting new associates, we routinely share our strong active commitment to the environment, community service, safety and diversity.”

Over the years, Milliken has learned to emphasize mutual cultural fit when conducting hiring interviews, bettering its chances of finding associates with the same alignment of values and making a long-term engagement with the company likelier, says Haydamack. It also offers continuous learning for all jobs throughout the company, making this an integral part of an environment of continuous improvement.

With a solid benefits package, fun teambuilding activities, employee recognition and community involvement, Peachtree Awnings and Tennessee Awnings keep turnover in the low double-digits. In this photo, team member Deven Turner works on a dome awning. Photo: BAM! Investments, dba Peachtree Awnings & Tennessee Awnings.

Retention-focused workplaces

Milliken deploys a variety of methods to uncover what benefits and qualities are most important to its associates and how they view the company, including culture surveys and focus group. Leaders also informally and formally engage with their teams asking for input and addressing questions and issues.

“We also constantly monitor trends in the regions where we operate,” says Haydamack. “Much of the data we glean from our research directly impact what we offer associates and what we need to implement in order to remain an employer of choice.”

Among other retention efforts, the company has recently conducted a production facilities wage review initiative, has updated its nursing rooms and fine-tuned its flextime policy to achieve a better work-life balance for all associates. 

Considering the cost of losing employees, the effort is worthwhile.

“Turnover can cost the company as much as one time an associate’s earnings, so turning over a single associate can cost upwards of $40,000 per year,” says Barry Adams, president of Peachtree Awnings and Tennessee Awnings. “It’s easier and less expensive to keep an associate than to go out and find a new one.” 

Headquartered in Atlanta, the company manufactures custom commercial and residential awnings and canopies. With 20 associates, Adams places his turnover between 10 and 12 percent. Retention has improved as he’s built a solid benefits package that includes flextime, medical, paid vacation/paid holidays and 401(k)/SIMPLE IRA. He also provides team-building activities like bowling, zip lining and company picnics, and he surveys associates verbally and electronically (for anonymity).

“You have to try many things and keep it fresh,” he says. “Employees have different hot buttons. Some like team-building activities; others like recognition or an occasional gift. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Cross-training is also important for keeping employees engaged; offering shift flexibility can be effective as well. For example, over the past decade MKM implemented four-day workweeks with 10-hour shifts, giving employees three-day weekends. Goodwin-Cole offers flex-time for certain sections. 

“Now, some in the factory work 6:00 a.m. to 2:30; the welder works 5:00 to 1:30; sales works 8:00 to 4:30 and some sales works 7:00 to 3:30,” Kirkwood explains. “This allows for easier commuting, all are overlapped and morale is better.”

Kirkwood says Goodwin-Cole also has weekly operations meetings where employees can voice concerns, discuss projects and discuss other items of interest. The meetings have increased productivity and fostered a stronger sense of belonging.

The benefits Poe offers have changed over the years in response to employee needs. “There was a time when health insurance was more important to our then-employees than vacation time or the base wage,” she explains. “So, we made sure to offer health insurance to those employees. That has changed. Now, we offer higher base wages andmore time off.”

She has also eliminated any practices that make employees feel judged. For example, although she sees the value of annual reviews, mentoring new employees and providing feedback as they learn has proven more effective.

“I’ve tried many incentives over the years,” Poe says. “In the end, I’ve found that making the shop a friendly place to work, allowing flexible time off as needed, and paying a decent wage are the key ingredients for keeping good people around.

“I like to treat my employees as adults who are capable of making good decisions,” she continues. “If they prove otherwise, they need to find a different job. This methodology might not work in a larger company, but it’s working well for us right now.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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