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CULTURAL INVESTMENT: Kevin Thompson with Cambridge Air Solutions talks about the importance of company culture as SMC Packaging's Mark McNay and Jennifer Baker with Good Dads look on.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
CULTURAL INVESTMENT: Kevin Thompson with Cambridge Air Solutions talks about the importance of company culture as SMC Packaging's Mark McNay and Jennifer Baker with Good Dads look on.

Workforce hurdles, culture investments earn attention at manufacturing conference

Missouri Association of Manufacturers event sets record in third year

Posted online

Broadening the talent pipeline while building and sustaining company culture were among challenges manufacturers shared with colleagues at a recent industry conference in Branson.

Roughly two dozen presentations from panels and speakers comprised a portion of the Midwest Manufacturers Trade Show & Conference, held Feb. 20-21 at the Branson Convention Center. The third-annual event was organized by the Missouri Association of Manufacturers.

Mark McNay, general manager and senior vice president at SMC Packaging Group, pulled double duty on Feb. 20, as he was a panelist for a pair of discussions focused on workforce issues. The Springfield-based company also has satellite offices in Kansas City; Conway, Arkansas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. When it comes to hiring, McNay said dispelling the myth that manufacturing work is dangerous, dark and dirty is still a priority.

“We need to somehow not only promote to kids but their parents that manufacturing careers can be great,” he said. “They can be well paid. There’s abundant opportunity, and it’s not just a job. It truly is a career.”

McNay said an upside is that job seekers and employers seem to be more understanding that not every path to success involves a four-year college degree. For those who are hired and want to further their education, he said almost every manufacturer will likely fund that request.

McNay, a 45-year company employee, said SMC officials look monthly at the U.S. labor participation rate, which is largely stagnant. The rate was 62.5% in January and has remained around the 62% mark since May 2020, when it dipped briefly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“We have to find some way to get more people into the workforce,” he said, noting child care is among hurdles facing employees. “The approach we have taken is we have to broaden that talent pipeline.”

He cited the I-Create Manufacturing Career Day & Industry Showcase, which was held in 2022 at the Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing on the Ozarks Technical Community College campus. Over 1,000 high school students from a 12-county region attended the event, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“We like to think that we have such good connections with OTC and the instructors there that when they see somebody with a real spark, they call us and then we try to get internships with those students so that they get comfortable with who we are,” McNay said.

Make a plan
Stacey Marler, chief operating officer of Rolla-based Missouri Enterprise, which also has an office in Springfield, said there’s not a cure all for embedding technology, such as automation, robots and cybersecurity, into your workforce pipeline.

“You have to start with a plan. If you don’t, you’re just going to be wasting time, money and resources out there. You have to set some goals,” he said, adding that includes key performance indicators. “If you don’t have goals, then what are you doing?”

Marler said if manufacturers can’t market what they make, they will likely struggle to sell the product. A strong company website is a key component, he said.

“What’s the first place somebody’s going to look at when they go look for a job or research a company? It’s a website,” he said. “Social media’s not polished or your brand’s not polished? Good luck.”

Companies also should have a good nurturing program for new hires, he said. That might include a welcoming email that includes a video or audio file that describes the company’s culture.

McNay said employers can’t look at onboarding orientation as a burden.

“It has to be an opportunity to connect with your new hires,” he said, noting if SMC can retain an employee for 60-90 days, the company’s culture will set in. “When we hire someone, we send a welcome card to their home, so their family understands how happy we are to have them on board with us. We send them a card their first day when they’re onboarded. Their first day of work, we actually allow them and their crew to have lunch together with their supervisor.

“The tendency is to talk about what we do and how we do it. What’s more important is who we are and why we do it.”

Pilot program
At his second panel of the day, McNay and Jennifer Baker, executive director of nonprofit Good Dads Inc., shared the connection the two organizations made last year. Good Dads led a pilot Fundamentals of Fatherhood course at SMC as an employee benefit. The program is designed to forge connections with any type of father, including stepfathers, grandfathers and father figures, according to officials. The curriculum’s goal is to help any father become the best he can be using a combination of video material, facilitator-led group discussion and engaging activities.

“It was good for those that had not the perfect experience growing up to hear from some of these that had kind of this idyllic experience to say, ‘I struggle with the same things.’ That reality really bonded them,” McNay said. 

SMC hosted two sessions of the course last year and plans for a third class this spring, according to officials.

Baker said the course is designed to help men be good fathers, but in so doing aid them to be better employees by investing in a certain future with their family. A lot of men come from very different backgrounds than they did 30-40 years ago, she said, noting many were not raised in a safe and stable home.

“We want that dad to be successful at work because we know that when he is successful at work, he’s going to be able to provide for his children,” Baker said. “When he is providing for his children, he has a sense of self-worth and dignity that makes him more inclined to stay with the employer who cares about him.”

Terri Tucker, founder of leadership coaching company Tucker Resources, served as moderator of the panel. She noted every business, as well as family, school and church, has a culture.

“It’s just a matter of whether or not it’s the culture you want. We can’t cross our fingers and just hope the culture forms,” she said. “We have to be purposeful and intentional about it.”

Culture also can serve as a recruitment tool, McNay said.

“Part of that is the leaders in the organization need to be involved in social, civic, professional, charitable endeavors, because that’s how you get your name out there,” he said. “We like to think that all of our co-workers are our recruiters. And every time we have a plantwide meeting, we remind them of that.”

MAM Executive Director Michael Eaton said registrations for the two-day conference were a record high of 785, more than 100 above last year’s event. The exhibitor total of 136 also was up over 10% from 2023. The conference, which included session tracks on topics such as workforce, leadership and marketing, also included the inaugural Missouri Manufacturers Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Local honorees were Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holdings Corp., and Edwin “Cookie” Rice, emeritus CEO of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co.

Branson is the planned site for next year’s conference, which Eaton said likely will take place in February.

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