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The work force, globalized

In spite of huge productivity gains in recent years, much of that from employees striving to maintain their jobs and keep the work in the U.S., for many companies it hasn''t been enough.

Today''s manufacturing work force is facing unprecedented challenges. Job security is a thing of the past, many workers complain. In spite of agreeing to pay cuts and benefit reductions, there''s little reward for loyalty, say workers. Globalization, mergers, and acquisitions are all factors in pulling the rug out from under manufacturing employees as they watch plants close or consolidate.

For example, in the Fall of 2002, Maytag Corp. announced that it would close their large-refrigerator manufacturing plant in Galesburg, IL, and move the work to the company''s plant in Reynosa, Mexico, in 2003. The Rural Economic Technical Assistance Center in the region showed that $111 million in payroll would evaporate along with 1600 union jobs, affecting approximately 2000-5000 people in the surrounding area employed by Maytag suppliers-the ripple effect.

And, in more recent news, Maytag has been purchased by its largest rival, Whirlpool Corp. (Benton Harbor, MI), for an aggregate transaction value of $2.7 billion. Just how this will impact manufacturing and employees is yet to be seen.

Solutions desired

All of that has management looking for better ways to deal with employee issues, and maintain productivity and efficiency. That''s the environment that Denis Kroll, senior counselor with The Sand Creek Group Ltd. (Stillwater, MN), enters into when he helps companies deal with the pressures of globalization that might include downsizing. The Sand Creek Group offers a full range of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to address both workplace and personal issues.

"There''s general anxiety in the workplace, and I''m seeing more people feeling under stress as they are working longer and harder but not feeling as secure," explains Kroll. "Employees are not seeing the culture in the same way as it was at one time, both above them in management and below them in lower-level jobs. There used to be more of a community or family feeling among a company''s employees, but that''s breaking down."

Kroll notes that all these stressors in today''s manufacturing environment make for some "toxic employees" or those who can''t handle the stress and go over the top, sometimes hurting themselves and/or their co-workers.

After an employer signs onto the program, these EAPs permit employees to call anytime, in confidence, a telephone number posted in the workplace so that they can talk to someone about their problems. "Most often they come in and see a counselor, usually on a short-term basis of three to six sessions," explains Kroll. "It can be about any issue including workplace issues, substance abuse, health issues, or family issues. We also provide management consultations or supervisor consultations."

Cutbacks are certainly something employees worry about, Kroll confirms. "If they''re lucky they may be up against debating whether to transfer or not to someplace they may or may not want to live, and the uncertainties of moving the family to a new place."

Karla Dobeck, an HR consultant and owner of Human Resource Techniques Inc. (Algonquin, IL) says that the "losing my job" scare is pretty much standard in manufacturing, however she is a firm believer in good communications between management and production employees.

"Companies should take care to communicate with their employees about issues that impact the work place," says Dobeck. "They can do one-on-one informational meetings, periodic state-of-the-company meetings, letting employees know how sales are doing and that the firm is looking for business in these new markets, overhead is increasing but sales are up. Not just because of fears of globalization, this open communication makes them feel they are a part of the company, and they are less likely to invent things in their own minds."

Dobeck also recommends being up-front about any impending layoffs. "If you are facing some type of layoff, let employees know early on that this action is pending, so that people who might be thinking about leaving will go ahead and leave, and you don''t have to lay off as many," says Dobeck.

"In the final selection of who''s going, do it as a group so they won''t think they''re singled out. Also, have the unemployment people come in to talk about any benefits they may be entitled to, have people from the company''s benefits department come and talk about 401K and pension rollovers, offering those affected by the layoff some supportive assistance. Employees notice the way you''ve treated those who are leaving and have a better feel for the company."

Kroll cites a manufacturing company in the area that was bought out a couple of times. "Although there were not many job losses, there was high anxiety among employees. They have to adjust to a whole new management system, and a new company identity. This was a small town and the primary employer so it had an impact. They made it through-they have their jobs-just different management."

The changes in the workplace, Kroll says, are ongoing. "I think it will settle, but we''re going through a major transition globally."

Encouraging employee growth

John Howe, a Phoenix-based HR consultant, says that employees generally understand that layoffs are always a possibility and it''s incumbent upon them to keep their skills up to maintain their employability. "One strategy companies have taken not just in response to globalization but to acquisitions and automation, is helping employees recognize that they are responsible for managing their own careers, to be employable and maintain their livelihood. Most provide training programs for advancing in technical aspects of their jobs, and some companies will help the employees get a degree," says Howe.

"There are a lot of resources available to employees that provide opportunities that are either fully or partially funded by the company that can increase a person''s skills. Most require the skills be applicable to the company, but most are pretty liberal about what that degree is."

The reality that your job might be outsourced to anywhere on the globe is something that employees have to consider in today''s electronic age, notes Howe.

"People who don''t hear that are somewhat naïve. At the end of the day, if outsourcing is in the best interest of the company-and basically companies have to make a profit and be competitive-then people need to keep their skills marketable," Howe stresses.

"These shells are incoming every day, so it''s mature and prudent to realize you have to keep your employability up and accept it that the world can-and probably will-change."

Change is difficult. However, Dobeck advises, "the more the employees are kept in the loop and made aware of what''s going on the better they will understand that the company is making change to be more competitive, and the more readily they''ll accept that change."

Clare Goldsberry [email protected]

TAGS: Business
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