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Friday | 07 October, 2011 | 10:19 am

Cultural change

By Meghan Boyer

Younger workers have a different set of needs than older generations

October 2011—A family-owned company since its start in 1977, Westfield Steel Inc., Westfield, Ind., continues to grow to meet the needs of its customers. But with growth comes change and the need for more workers. Some of the changes Westfield Steel is implementing are intended to help the company attract and retain younger workers, says Fritz Prine, the company’s CFO. 

“It’s much more difficult to attract and retain quality in the generation that is in their 20s right now. They have a completely different set of expectations, capabilities, use of technology, value systems,” he says. “We’re trying to create more things that are attractive to that set of people because at the end of the day, you still need people to do the work.”

Finding qualified workers to hire has been a challenge for Westfield. Many students graduating from high school don’t want to work in a factory, says Ralph Mills, Westfield plant manager. Manufacturing can provide employees with good wages and steady employment. However, fewer young people can see this. 

“We don’t do enough of opening that horizon to people as a career path, perhaps in high school. Nor do we give them the skills to allow them to succeed,” Mills says, noting the hiring problem is industry-wide. “There’s a lot of people who can’t read a tape measure,” because they lack a base level of education, he says. 

For these reasons, many companies—including Westfield—are exploring more automated equipment that requires fewer workers to operate, says Mills. Computer systems that show workers exactly where to cut on a beam are more necessary now, whereas before workers would be able to work without such technology. Likewise, more machines have built-in troubleshooting capabilities because fewer workers are able to determine a problem and make repairs on their own, he says. 

Different needs
Skills-based training and education are not the only elements young manufacturing workers need. Younger workers also often need more coaching, encouragement and a sense of community. Social networking, blogs and eco-friendliness matter more to younger workers, says Prine. They want to be challenged and engaged. “Not everyone wants higher wages. Some people want to feel like they’re part of something,” he says. The challenge for many service centers is determining how to provide that and relate to the next generation of workers. 

“If you turn over an entire generation, you have to change the culture. It can’t stay the same,” says Prine. Working in a family business with his father, Prine sees himself as in-between generations in the metals industry. “I can recognize three or four different generations and try to figure out the best way to move the company forward. The way I’m moving it forward [in terms of] culture are things that I consider universal: accountability, quality and effort.”

Sometimes bridging the gap between generations means exploring new areas—or at least ones that are new to the metals industry. 

The metals industry largely does not participate in social networking or blogs, but they have great importance to young people, says Prine. However, the current benefits of using such online tools can be difficult to measure. 

A range of technology skills exists in the industry, and not everyone is computer-savvy, says Prine. “We have customers who don’t have email still” and rely on the fax machine, he says. “As an industry, as modern as we are, we’re still not [that modern],” so the business case for social media still needs to be made.  MM

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