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Next-gen sewers

Strategic onboarding and training help marine fabrication shops stay in the game—while providing entry-level sewers viable career paths. 

Features | July 1, 2022 | By: Sigrid Tornquist

Antonio, one of SewLong Custom Covers’ youngest team members, hones his sewing skills on a cinch cover. Photo: Laura Kinser, Kinser Studios

It’s not easy. Attracting, hiring and keeping sewers is perhaps one of the most challenging issues facing marine fabrication shops today. But the good news is that it is not an insurmountable challenge. Many people want to put their hands to work and make something beautiful and functional from available parts. And for shop owners who want to attract those people, providing structure, incentives and intentional training are key to reassuring emerging makers that they are in good hands—and that they have a future within the industry.

The hunt

Most fabricators have tried the usual avenues to source new sewers: online recruiters, technical schools, local classified ads, government programs—all with limited success. And, of course, fabricators have tried the “great connector” of Facebook, which one might think would be a viable avenue because it reaches so many people—but that route has fallen especially flat for some looking for help. “People who had nothing to do with sewing would reply to our Facebook ads,” says Terri Madden, MFC, owner of Sand Sea and Air Interiors in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “You have to be very careful how to target your language in order to not waste your time.”

Salt Lake City, Utah-based SewLong Custom Covers has had a similar experience. “Our experience with Facebook is that you get a lot of applicants, but because it’s so easy to just click a button, it’s the least effective way to recruit new sewers,” says Clint Halladay, production manager and lead fabricator at SewLong. “Other than that, it doesn’t seem like one thing works better than another,” says Halladay. “The key thing is, once they’re in the door, you need to have a training program that is deliberate.”

Esmerelda of SewLong Custom Covers demonstrates “go and see,” a technique she uses to observe and teach. Here Taylor is learning the intricacies of sewing swim platform covers. Photo: Laura Kinser, Kinser Studios

Finding the fit

Experienced fabricators tend to agree that hiring for culture fit outweighs hiring for developed sewing skills. “The most important thing when hiring for any position is that the person fits with our culture and team,” says Charlene Clark, IFM, co-owner of Signature CanvasMakers, Hampton, Va. “It is easier to train someone on the skills required for their position than it is to try to teach the ‘soft skills,’ such as work ethic, attention to detail, teamwork and showing up for work on time.”

Alignment with a mission statement and core values are critical elements Halladay considers when hiring. “Our culture fit is what we strive to look for when hiring,” Halladay says. “In our onboarding process we go over our mission statement four times and our core values five times—and that’s intentionally redundant. We want to make it clear that it’s not one core value or the other—it’s the power of ‘and.’ On the first day, we share our vision of where we want to go and where they fit into that, both immediately and in the future.”

SewLong’s core values, which are provided to new employees in English and Spanish, are designed to make employees feel secure, and fall under the umbrella of the company’s mission statement: “Provide amazing customer service while fusing craftsmanship and innovation to deliver extraordinary marine canvas, upholstery and contract textiles.”

While soft skills are important, applicants still need to demonstrate an aptitude to sew—and employers need to take the long view. “We look for people who have some basic skills for the position [a starting foundation], have aptitude and the right attitude—but not whether they can produce profits for us immediately,” says Ed Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas and Upholstery LLC, Marco Island, Fla. “What that means for employers is that they need to invest on the front end. All training happens on the clock.” 

Marco Canvas owner Ed Skrzynski says employers need to take the long view. “We look for people who have some basic skills for the position, have aptitude and the right attitude—but not whether they can produce profits for us immediately.” Photo: Marco Canvas and Upholstery LLC

On board and secure

Once employees are hired, onboarding and transparent expectations are critical. “In the past, the things that made us least successful were not being prepared for a new hire,” Halladay says. “Not having an onboarding process and not having everything in place—such as not having a station set up for the new employee to work at—these were mistakes we made in the past.

“It’s not surprising that if a person doesn’t feel like they’re in a secure place, they end up leaving,” he continues. “Now we have a checklist of things we go through before we even place an ad. We have a much more deliberate way of hiring and onboarding.”

Among the strategies in his new onboarding process, Halladay assigns two mentors to each new employee, who connect via text messages before the employees start, meet them on their first day and help them get acclimated. “We text them to let them know the things they need to know to make their first day a little less stressful,” Halladay says. “Things like where to park, what we have in the break room, who to contact for what. The mentors are here before the new hire arrives to help them get clocked in, give them a shop tour and hang with them during our morning meeting.”

Esmerelda of SewLong Custom Covers uses standard boards to teach and remind Crystal how to finish the edge of a surf pocket. Photo: Laura Kinser, Kinser Studios

Skill building

After all that, the real work of learning the technical skills begins. Again, having an intentional, well-structured training protocol is critical to success. “We have an apprentice program where we commit in writing to the training they will get, the starting wage, and the milestones they will need to hit, as well as the times they will need to hit them, and the amount of increased pay they will get at each benchmark measurement stage,” Skrzynski says. 

Skrzynski writes an employee apprentice agreement through which he and the employee mutually agree on the training needed, what the benchmarks are and the time frame. The agreement also includes how much time the employee needs to be employed by the company after hitting the benchmarks. “Sometimes it’s a year and sometimes it’s several years,” he says. “It is key to have a mutual understanding and to have frequent checkpoints.”

Signature CanvasMakers has a tiered training program consisting of apprentice, level 1, level 2 and master sewer, and requires that everyone goes through the apprentice level when they begin, regardless of experience. “Each level has certain products that the sewer not only needs to be able to produce independently and proficiently to our standards, but also within a designated percentage of our time standards,” Clark says. “Someone at a master sewer level also needs to be able to effectively train others and show proficiency in problem solving, production planning and leadership.”

This Sand Sea and Air project board provides a clear visual and written description for all personnel working on the project, including estimated time frame and materials needed prior to commencing work. Photo: Sand Sea and Air Interiors

For more complex projects, Sand Sea and Air uses project boards to track the details, including materials needed, type of thread, vinyl, foam, height, adhesive and hardware, as well as stitching samples. “My daughter Alayna Wool implemented the use of the boards and it’s a really good teaching tool to communicate to the team the exact information they need to complete the project,” Madden says. “It eliminates errors and if we ever have to do something else for the client on the project, we have all the information.”

SewLong Custom Covers also uses visual boards to track projects, which Halladay refers to as sample boards or standard boards. “They have each individual project broken down with step-by-step instructions,” Halladay says. “Our lead sewer uses them as a teaching tool and walks the newer sewers through the project, using the board as a visual guide.”

Corinne Todd, a sewer with Signature CanvasMakers, utilizes skills that she acquired during her apprentice training to fabricate enclosures and more complex projects. Photo: Charlene Clark

For all of these fabricators, having master sewers mentor the newly hired is at the heart of the training process. “Very few sewers come to us with marine canvas experience. We have had the most success when we set clear expectations, assign checkpoints to ensure that the expectations are being met, and provide feedback for improvement throughout,” Clark says. “Problems arise when we ‘assume’ that the person understands the process and isn’t monitored throughout.” 

Still, no matter how skilled a sewer becomes, what shop owners want and need are skilled sewers who will become long-term members of the team. “I think it’s super important to provide psychological safety for new employees—to make people feel like they are a part of the organization, part of something bigger than themselves,” Halladay says. “They need to know that the organization has a place for them in their future.” 

Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Reference databases: An important tech training tool

“All our processes are documented and stored on an app called Trainual. This is our master reference database for everything that we produce. Everyone learns differently, so Trainual allows us to include written, step-by-step instructions, a ‘Build Sheet,’ which shows how a product comes together, a QA checklist and pictures of certain parts of the process and, ultimately, the desired result. We are also in the process of adding videos. The sewers have tablets at each workstation so they are able to easily access all of the processes as needed.” 

~ Charlene Clark, Signature CanvasMakers

“We’ve started using Microsoft OneNote to compile our SOPs [standard operating procedures], so that everything is in one place. Everyone on the team has an iPad. The sewers have iPads at their fingertips on their sewing machine so they can easily access instructional documents and videos. We’re in the process of adding more videos as well.”  

~ Clint Halladay, SewLong Custom Canvas

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