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It’s been called a “turnover tsunami,” and workforce observers have been predicting it for more than a year. Now it’s here, and manufacturers and other employers aren’t ready.

Manufacturing employers at the NoCo Manufacturing Partnership annual trade show heard from employment professionals in one of the trade show’s professional-development seminars on Thursday at the Ranch Events Center in east Loveland. They were provided with guidance on how to survive the tsunami — maybe not stay upright on their surfboards but at least hang onto the board.

From left, Mohamad Abbasi, Kristen Moorsfield and Christine Haxton participate in a panel discussion about workforce issues facing manufacturers. (BizWest/Ken Amundson / Courtesy photo)

“Last year, more than half of employees in America said they’d be looking for a new job in 2021,” said Christine Haxton, founder of The Center for Sustainable Strategies and the moderator on the workforce panel discussion. She said quit rates in 2020 were low because of the pandemic. “Now, there’s pent-up demand, and it’s starting to happen,” she said.

Kristen Moorsfield, director of operations for Sparkfun Electronics Inc., a Niwot company of about 100 employees, said she was not surprised that people would be changing jobs but she was surprised by the magnitude.

“When you have a low year of turnover (as in 2020), you typically see those waves. Low year, then a high year. The valley and the peak were significantly lower and now higher (respectively),” she said. “People’s motivations for work changed during the pandemic. Now, people are leaving without necessarily having something else to go to.”

Mohamad Abbasi concurred. He’s a client development manager for employee-recruitment firm Adecco and is assigned to work exclusively with Woodward Inc. (Nasdaq: WWD). “People who were doing their own thing outside the office and are now being dragged back into the office are rethinking where they want to work. Motivations have changed. ‘I have something else in mind that I want to do,’” he said.

Haxton said people “became much less tolerant of the things they were tolerating (before the pandemic).”

As companies have lost staff, they’ve gotten more aggressive in pursuing new staff members. “Poaching is bonkers,” Moorsfield said. She said employers are offering double and triple salaries to workers who will defect and go to another company. “Can small to medium-sized manufacturers compete? Maybe.”

Haxton said she’s seeing companies offering inflated titles, perhaps before the individual is ready for the job.

“Monetary value and time value are the important things right now,” Abbasi said. He said that older candidates want benefits that help them prepare for retirement. Younger candidates want to grow with the company and find a place where they can apply what they’ve learned on previous jobs.

Abbasi said that companies like Woodward are beginning to compare their benefits packages with those of other companies, “because potential employees are doing those comparisons, too.”

Retention of existing employees is one answer to the problem, and likely less expensive than recruiting new staff members. Making the company a desirable place to work is key.

“Companies need a plan for people to move up, not just a ‘hope’ of moving up. Hope is not a plan,” Haxton said. “You have to catch them before they start considering ‘having an affair,” she said in comparing the employer/employee relationship to a marriage.

Moorsfield said that small companies with relatively flat management structures don’t have a lot of vertical room for aspirational staff members. But they can be cross-trained so that they understand more of the operation and see opportunities outside of their departments.

“I’m a silver-linings person. One of the silver linings (from the pandemic) has been that applicants know what they want. If I’m looking for a manufacturing job, I know what comes with that. People have made their risk tolerance judgments,” Moorsfield said.

She described Sparkfun’s primary core value as “people first,” which in its case applies to managers and employees.

“What this truly means is showing up as a good citizen every day, the best version of yourself every day. Now (managers) can hold their teams accountable to that standard if they’re exhibiting it themselves. Most people don’t sit down and say ‘these are my values.’ But you can see them. You can see if people are engaged or not.”

She said it is “incredibly important for retention when you have a functional team where people are interested in one another.”

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