18/11/2010 - 00:00

Training, development key to retaining a skilled workforce in testing times

18/11/2010 - 00:00


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DANIEL Stean started at floral import export company WAFEX 10 years ago, sweeping the factory floor; now he is the general manager of the company’s Perth warehouse, overseeing 40 staff.

Training, development key to retaining a skilled workforce in testing times

DANIEL Stean started at floral import export company WAFEX 10 years ago, sweeping the factory floor; now he is the general manager of the company’s Perth warehouse, overseeing 40 staff.

The success and longevity of Mr Stean’s career at WAFEX is an example of the effort many local businesses are putting into training and retaining their staff.

WAFEX managing director Craig Musson said human resources management was something that snuck up on many smaller businesses.

“Most of us don’t go into business with a view to managing people. You go into business because you see an opportunity or a gap in the market,” he said.

WAFEX began overhauling its human resources policies about a decade ago, subscribing to the, ‘hire hard, manage easy’ theory and putting potential employees through two panel interviews with management and long-serving staff.

There’s also a strong focus on training, after management noticed that younger workers were less likely to stay if they felt their skills weren’t being improved.

Mr Musson will spend $60,000 this year on training initiatives, working from the top down, sending management to courses at Curtin Business School and arranging mentoring through The Executive Connection.

For Mr Musson, training is less about holding onto staff and more about the two-fold benefits of increasing worker engagement and raising the ability to promote from within.


Communication between management and staff is an important part of human resources policy at boot manufacturer Steel Blue.

This year, Steel Blue created a people engagement committee to advise on issues in the workplace.

Chief executive Garry Johnson said suggestions so far had included changes to office and factory layouts to improve communication and safety, greater recognition of employee milestones, and requests for more access to training courses.

Keeping staff engaged and motivated was part of broader retention strategy that required constant attention.

“We don’t want to be complacent. We think we’ve got it right but culture is something you have to keep investing in,” Mr Johnson said.

“We want to keep growing that culture and we think if we do that we will be well protected from some of the issues associated with workforce shortages.”

Communication is also an important part of the retention strategy at Rojan Advanced Ceramics, where competition for staff from the resources sector is an ongoing concern.

Managing director Rod Stead said it was a constant effort to keep staff engaged but well worth the benefits.

“We have toolbox meetings each Thursday morning for people in the factory to be able to communicate with management. It’s an important part of our business, keeping communications open,” he said.

Up to 15 per cent of Rojan’s profits are distributed to high-performing staff during the pre-Christmas period as a financial incentive to productivity and loyalty.

“We certainly have been able to retain staff as a result of being proactive,” Mr Stead said.

Investing in training

A renewed investment in training and apprenticeships is becoming a vital part of ensuring businesses can access the skilled labour they need.

At gourmet olive supplier Don Vica, access to training is tied to performance reviews, with high-achieving staff offered opportunities for personal and career development.

Founding partner Veronica Morrissey, who oversees 24 staff, offers a range of off-site training courses, from forklift licences and computer skills to workshops on how to be assertive.

“People love to be important, and they like to be invested in and that sort of investment has just worked wonders for us. We’ve never had people stay so long,” Ms Morrissey said.

Many major companies were quick to cut apprenticeships when the global financial crisis hit, but those that didn’t are now reaping the benefits of a readymade skilled workforce.

Construction and contract mining company Macmahon has 100 apprentices across four years of training, last month taking out the north-west resource and infrastructure category at the Minister’s Awards for Excellence for Employers of Australian Apprentices.

Apprentice coordinator Jason Cullen credits the success of his apprenticeship program to its hands-on approach, which helps teenagers make the transition to adulthood.

“We don’t just say, you’ve signed up as an apprentice so you’re going to get your trade papers,” he said.

“We also say we’re going to teach you about saving money, we’re going to teach you to drive and get a heavy rigid drivers licence, we’re going to get you a forklift licence, a crane licence.”

Macmahon has a 90 per cent completion rate, higher than national standards, which are cited anywhere between 20 and 60 per cent.

Mr Cullen said the support offered to apprentices was a large factor in such a high retention rate.

“They can ring me at 8, 9, 10 at night and say, ‘Jason, what am I supposed to be doing next week?’ They always have someone who’s there for them.”

Mr Cullen refused to cut apprenticeships during the GFC, instead going to management and offering a compromise.

“I went to our management and they asked what I was going to cut? I said I would work with the apprentices and have the fourth years complete their training early and they will fill all the trade vacancies so there’d be no need to recruit.”

Machinery supplier Komatsu was able to use its position as a national company to keep apprentices in work during the GFC by sending them where the demand was.

Western region production manager Sean Ashby said many apprentices were re-deployed to Queensland and New South Wales where demand remained strong, and now, as the WA economy picked up, many were being recalled.

Mr Ashby remains concerned that a lack of pre-apprentice training places at technical colleges means eager would-be trades people are missing out on the opportunity to enter the workforce.

“What we really need to look at is expanding our training facilities,” he said.

The Orontide Group, which includes Robil Engineering, Alphablast and Madco, is another company that refused to cut places during the economic downturn.

General manager of engineering services Tony Lutzu said he saw apprentices as an investment in his industry’s future.

“We didn’t cut apprenticeships. We never have and we never will,” he said. “There is a financial impact and it would be easy to cut them out, but we see it over the longevity of the business.

“A lot of apprentices we’ve had in the past that have left are now sometimes our clients as well. They grow within the industry.

“Because we held onto the people during the GFC I think we’ve generated a little bit of loyalty.”

The company regularly reviews salaries based on the consumer price index and can offer higher wages for those working rurally, but Mr Lutzu said for many workers, it was not all about the money.

“It’s not always money, we have good facilities, good infrastructure and good workshops,” he said.

Big business

Even at the top end of town, multinational companies in the resources sector aren’t relying on their ability to attract and retain staff purely with high wages.

Chevron rapidly grew its Australian presence, trebling its workforce during the past four years and increasing staff in Western Australia from 580 in 2007 to 1,400 in 2010.

Construction of the Gorgon gas project on Barrow Island in the state’s north is expected to create 10,000 direct and indirect jobs over the next few years.

Chevron Australia managing director Roy Krzywosinski said such rapid growth had to be coupled with a commitment to workforce development, with 1,000 internal training courses offered this year. Chevron employs 120 university graduates in a five-year program designed to fast-track career development.



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