Skills to Pay the Bills

Five critical personnel tips to consider when reopening your business.

As businesses start the slow and potentially painful process of reopening, the gap in the skills available for the workforce may be a challenge.

Not everyone will be brought back at once, and everyone that was previously on the payroll may not make the cut. From my discussions with business leaders around the country, plenty are choosing to leave who I’ve always called “the problem children” at home.

The Elephant in the Room

From these discussions, I’m finding a good number are wading through the muck of dealing with attitude issues with employees who return to work, but are not emotionally fit to do the job. They work at a slower pace and have a lingering negative attitude that seems to be primarily caused by the government’s excessive overpayment for the unemployment check. They were making more money not working than when they were actually working.

Somehow, coming back to work has caused deep-seated resentment for their employers. Not all of the workers, mind you, but enough that it’s causing some morale issues. While everyone wants to be fully operational and functioning in a positive manner, you cannot let this go unchallenged; corrective actions have to be taken. Create a policy early, stick to it, and hold people accountable. This absolutely has to be resolved early before it can fester.

Addressing the Learning Curve

Unless your business went through a massive layoff or furlough situation after the 2009 recession, you may not have experienced the challenge of bringing back employees. There’s a learning curve in both how to handle this challenge from a leadership perspective and in workforce skills that may be needed. Let’s break down some key things to consider:

• New Work from Home Situations: Some of your staff, such as your sales, art, accounting, or customer service teams may need to be working from home. Social distancing may be in effect for some time. 

• Skills Supply and Demand: Some of your crew may have to pitch in with roles they don’t have much experience in handling. Who is going to teach them and what is the plan for training?

• Supply Chain Disruptions: Will all of the inventory for garments, supplies, and other needs be available? This is going to add pressure to your already imbalanced and awkward situations in reopening your business. Look to establish communication with your suppliers early and often. Common items may be on backorder or not available. Don’t let this cause frustration with your team.

Be Solution Oriented

You’re not going to know every challenge that may be looming around the corner. Planning is a fantastic way to start, but be prepared to pivot or make changes as new information comes to light. It’s the solution you’re after, not dogmatically sticking to the plan.

Here are a few considerations to get you thinking about what you might need:

1. Take a Skills Inventory

What are the core tasks of your business? Have you mapped this out before? These are the key elements that are present and necessary for everything you do – not just in production, but in sales, marketing, accounting, scheduling, art, purchasing, receiving, and shipping. Who is doing the work, and what are their core tasks and responsibilities? What does quality look like? Think about when these actions and activities have to happen for seamless flow. Define these roles. What are the skills necessary to perform each of these tasks? Do you have a method to assess the level of skill for each employee in your business in these areas? 

Let’s say you need someone to help in shipping. Who on your staff knows your computer system and can be trained on how to coordinate with UPS, FedEx, or ShipStation? Having a skills inventory for the basic, intermediary, and advanced skills your business needs to operate can help you think through this challenge, and also assist in who to bring back as your shop opens.

2. Start a Training Program

Not all of your team will have the necessary skills. You’ll want to start cross-training employees to give you better bench strength moving forward. You can’t simply shove someone into the deep end of the pool and hope they can swim.

Remember, you can only move as fast as the slowest part of your process. When shops are understaffed, this typically means key functions get delayed because there are not enough people or hours in the day to handle everything. This is why it might seem like you’re jumping from fire to fire constantly.
When thinking about where you should begin your training program, start with these challenges. Your first inclination might be to train more printing press operators, but your actual delays are being caused by your screen room processes and scheduling. Work on those friction points first.

3. Make Learning a Journey

Once your training program is underway, don’t stop. Keep it going by adding more skills and advanced knowledge to your team. This should be a dedicated and continual process. Over time, your team will be cross-trained into many different functional areas and this will increase their value to the company. Generally speaking, most people want to learn and be empowered to make decisions because they have the background and know what to do. With that increased value, you can add to their compensation as you are receiving a bigger benefit from them.

This learning journey needs to be coordinated and planned. It won’t happen by you simply willing it to happen. Build out the process, keep track of the knowledge learned, and use a calendar to plan new learning opportunities for each employee. Usually, an HR director handles this task, but if your company doesn’t have one, this should be the responsibility of each departments’ manager.

4. Learning Takes Time and Money

To increase the skill level of your employees, they’ll need to spend extra time learning. This means they’ll be away from their normal role for small chunks of time while they’re learning and practicing the new skill. This needs to be understood by all involved and protected. Someone will have to cover for “Jane” for an hour while she’s being trained in something in a different area. She may need some materials to practice with. Most people make mistakes during this time, so there may be some cost in that.

For more advanced concepts, your team may need to take a class, buy a book, or purchase some training from outside resources. How much time and money has your business actually dedicated to this every year for employee development? Is this in your budget? For a lot of shops in this industry, sadly it isn’t. Yet, these are the ones that are always struggling with quality, scheduling, employee turnover, or job satisfaction issues. Hopefully, this doesn’t sound too familiar. But if it does, how will you address it?

5. Address Your Critical Needs
You may need to shift some people into new roles if you want to quickly get your business ramped up and operational. If you’re bringing employees back, one thing to start with is the discussion on this very topic. If your reopening team has a fantastic “let’s get it done” type of attitude, where they will do whatever it takes to succeed, you’re going to find that it will be much easier than if the your team has a negative attitude about coming back to work.

Flex some reskilling muscles and give your company a fighting chance by training multiple people at the same time for key roles. If you’re training one person to learn how to ship, why not train three at the same time?

Think things through, develop a plan, and then implement. 

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at marshall@marshallatkinson.com.

Watch Marshall address the learning curve associated with bringing employees back to work below.

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