Hiring, Training and Keeping

The greatest asset that can make or break any refuse management operation is personnel. Without a qualified, capable and conscientious staff, the best firms in the business quickly can be reduced to struggling has-beens.

Hiring, training and keeping good employees always is a challenge, but during the economic prosperity of this new century, the demand for qualified commercial drivers and mechanics, as well as administrative staff, is far outstripping the supply in some areas of the country. Thus, keeping an outstanding refuse driver from high-tailing it to your competition may rest in your personnel packages - including training, recruitment and incentives.

Waste Industries Inc., a Raleigh, N.C., publicly held solid waste company with a full- and part-time staff of 2,000, provides commercial, industrial and residential refuse management services in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It also offers street sweeping, medical waste management and recycling services to its customers.

Waste Age recently interviewed several of the company's key staff to identify the techniques they use to find and keep good employees.

The interview included: * Joe Lowry, human resource manager;

* Ralph Ford, risk manager;

* David Peck, fleet manager; and

* Dita Lumsden, human resources representative.

WA: How do you develop or define the various positions in your company?

Lowry: The majority of our employees are drivers. We're a decentralized company divided into regions with a manager overseeing each one. Under the manager are several branches, each with a branch manager and possibly an operations manager or supervisor. Then, staff is divided into product line, with the number depending on the location; location size; maintenance support; maintenance supervisor; mechanics; and so on.

Based on experience, we develop the needs for certain positions. From that, we develop by product line job descriptions that go into great detail about what we're looking for, necessary skills and job requirements. My staff must make sure that the job description is correct, based on the need.

WA: What are some of the skill levels that you look for in a roll-off or a front loader driver?

Peck: A roll-off driver has to get in and out of the truck quite often. He has to have some upper body strength to handle the cabling and heavier items. Thus, our job descriptions say roll-off drivers must be able to handle 65 pounds continuously for an eight-hour period. They have to be Commercial Driver's License (CDL)-qualified to drive a commercial truck. They also have to go through an annual department of transportation (DOT) physical, drug screens, a pre-hire drug screen and random drug sampling. This also applies to mechanics that service vehicles because they may have to drive.

WA: How do you recruit?

Lumsden: First, we try to recruit from within. We currently advertise on TV to recruit drivers that currently work for other companies. We just started this and have had a huge response. We also recruit from local community colleges and universities, and military base job fairs. Of course, we recruit from small newspaper advertisements and referrals from employees in the company. Word-of-mouth has worked well for us, and we hope that continues to be a good resource.

We get a good response through the [North Carolina] Employment Security Commission. A lot of our branches ask prospective employees to apply through the Employment Security Commission. The branch level recruits for their particular branch. At the home office, for open positions in the company, we do more general recruiting whenever there's a job fair or a need in a certain area. In the past, we've used radio, and within the past six months, we have gotten more involved with recruiting over the Internet.

WA: How do you recruit over the Internet? What do you put there, and how do people find your site?

Lumsden: We give people our website address [www.waste-ind.com] and spread the word about our website with anyone we meet, whether it's a client or another employee. We refer to our website in TV, radio and newspaper advertisements. On our website we list all of our open positions and give an e-mail address for browsers to e-mail resumes. Browsers also can complete an online application.

WA: What kind of problems do you experience in filling positions?

Lumsden: Our biggest struggle is finding qualified people. If we advertise, we usually get a lot of people who respond but aren't qualified. Another part is the salaries that interviewees ask for because the unemployment rate is so low. A lot of people are able to get higher salaries because there's such a need for qualified people.

WA: Are there various technical skills that are in short supply?

Peck: Some areas are becoming more difficult to find. Technical trades and drivers are the most difficult.

WA: What actions do you take to offset these labor shortages?

Lowry: Through the years, we've tried to make this an attractive company to work for [by] continually improving our benefits program, which has improved tremendously. Enhancing our benefits program makes us more attractive to join and also stay.

We also provide scholarships to the heavy equipment and diesel mechanic school. If potential employees would like to work with us part-time and learn as they go, then we're more than happy to teach them, hoping that when they graduate, they'll want to join us full-time. We look for people that are in trade school or in the military with diesel mechanic experience, but it could be more than diesel. It could be hydraulics or anything that would apply to our industry. In some cases, we mentor within our own ranks. We develop people from within that show an aptitude. We're happy to train them.

Peck: We started an automotive service excellence (ASE) certification program for technicians about three years ago. When technicians are certified, we reimburse them for their certification expenses. For every test that technicians successfully complete, they get an automatic 15 cents per hour to a maximum of 75 cents per hour pay raise. Once technicians complete five certifications, they are Master Certified Technicians. These employees are honored at a special awards presentation and with an ASE Master Ring. We also offer training on specific engines, transmissions, hydraulics and electronic needs so that our technicians can stay abreast of the technology on today's trucks.

Waste Industries also is a member of North Carolina Industries for Technical Education. This is a group of industries involved in community college programs because of what it would do for our futures. We recruit starting at middle school, through high school and onto the technical colleges, then employ them afterward. We provide scholarships for part of their educational expenses while they're in the technical college program. This has worked successfully in North Carolina and several states are attempting to copy it.

The waste business has not been as successful as the heavy equipment industry simply because the waste business is viewed on a different scale. The [scholarship] program saved four of the community college diesel engine programs in North Carolina that were scheduled to be dropped. We increased the enrollment so the colleges could maintain those, and now it's one of the most important roles in the community colleges that the group serves.

Ford: We offer drivers quarterly [safety] bonuses. These programs start off as low as $25 a quarter and go up. In addition, other incentives are branch-specific. For example, we have observation programs where we look for positive and negative effects, and when we find positive things going on in the workplace, we give immediate recognition with items like caps or pins to employees. On the negative side, when we find unsafe behavior, we try to correct the action immediately. That's a part of the overall training.

WA: Describe your orientation program?

Lowry: We have a formal orientation program. In addition to our handbook, this year, we've upgraded the program to include a question and answer session in which the employee is given a questionnaire that goes through company policies in detail. The supervisor goes over that questionnaire to ensure the employee understands company policy and can pass the orientation test. The test is used as a guide to ensure that the employee understands all the conditions of employment, the role of the company and the employee's role. It's the supervisor's responsibility to make sure that the new employee understands that role. We also have a 90-day probationary period where we teach new hires company policy. At the end of that period, we determine whether the employee will be successful with the company, and [if appropriate] we offer them a job.

Ford: For drivers, new employee training is more task-oriented than measured by time. We consider what a person has to do and break those jobs into specific tasks. This is a better process because people with varying degrees of experience come through our door. A guy who's been driving for a certain number of years may only have to learn specific things about the company's procedures and processes.

A person who has just graduated from technical school has to learn a lot of other important things related to driving. We look at the person and say that these are the tasks or these are the performance levels we want to see in an individual, and we work with the new employee until we can see the things we expect. In the end, performance is the most important thing, whether it takes one day or 20 days.

We have a checklist of performances the person needs to do on a daily basis to be safe and successful.

WA: Tell me about your master trainers.

Ford: This falls into the ongoing training process. Once you get a master trainer or someone with a little more experience, their skills are improved, so teaching has to be a little more specific. We want to develop these lead drivers into supervisors, as well as develop new employees into great drivers. At a minimum, we have monthly training with all of our employees where we go over Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-required training that must be completed during the year. We also have safety alerts on things that are going on in the industry or within our branches that employees need to know monthly.

At least annually, all of our drivers go through the National Solid Wastes Management Association program, "Coaching the Refuse Truck Driver." We want all new hires to go through that process within their first 90 days. Most of our drivers go through this process at least every 12 months. We also have a road-e-o where all employees go through an obstacle course.

WA: Describe incentive programs that you offer and how these programs help retain your employees?

Lowry: We recognize the value of the employee. Annually, we give [regional and company-wide] financial awards that we call Key Man. Winners are given plaques and monetary rewards, and their picture is hung in the home office main lobby. Also, there are many different safety awards.

Ford: Additionally, we award arm patches showing recognition on uniforms for the number of safe years they've had. Once we get to "pinnacle points" - five years, 10 years, 15 years and 20 years - we offer a little more incentive on top of those funds. For the five-year period, we reward employees with three additional vacation days and $250 on top of what they've already received. After 10 years, we give the employee a gold plaque, five days additional vacation and up to $500 for lodging and meals. Employees with 15 years receive eight additional vacation days and a $500 incentive. After 20 years, the award increases to 10 days additional vacation.

WA: Describe the progressive discipline programs your company uses to correct problems.

Lowry: We're heavily involved with coaching and feedback, but if an employee is showing tendencies not to be successful, we use progressive discipline, depending on the event. If someone is directly insubordinate, it could lead to termination. Generally, the progressive discipline would be a verbal warning, written warning, time off and ultimately termination. We try to be consistent and make sure that we're treating all employees fairly.

Ford: When it comes to accidents, injuries, etc., we try to find root causes. We don't discipline employees for having accidents. We are proactive and started an observation program called SMART Watch for Safe Motivated Accident-free Responsible Team players. In Smart Watch, we observe employees on the road at least once or twice a quarter. We look for unsafe behaviors or unsafe acts that occur during the normal work period. This allows us to correct things before employees have to be disciplined. We just started Smart Watch in the past three or four months, and we're seeing how this will help us.

WA: How do you handle drinking or drug problems?

Lowry: We have an Employee Assistance Program. If the employee says he is having a difficult time, or if the manager observes behavior that may indicate that the employee is having some type of duress - anything from family life, marital problems, financial or any other issue - he can talk with our Employee Assistance Program staff confidentially. Unfortunately, if the employee doesn't identify an issue such as a drug or an alcohol problem and it shows up during a random screen, or drugs or alcohol is determined to be the cause of an accident, then termination takes place. We're bound by some pretty strict standards to make sure that our employees are not a hazard to themselves or to others.

WA: What will be the key personnel issues in the refuse industry during the next few years, and what actions is your company taking to address those issues.

Lowry: Money is one thing. We pay a very competitive salary, have the best possible benefits and the best possible working conditions in an environment where an employee is going to be happy. That's our goal - providing that so we can promote long-term employment. At the same time, each year, we can try to improve the company itself, including the benefits and working conditions, to make this a very attractive place to stay.

Ford: The industry's image is one of the things we have faced all the years I've been in the industry. We actively recruit people who project the proper image. We're actively trying to bring in new technology and better vehicles. From the way we dress our employees to how we equip them, we're trying to bring up the industry's image and have the newest technology. That raises the image of the industry for all of us.

Peck: In bringing in new technology, we can't expect people to know automatically how to use the equipment. As new technology emerges, the industry will have to go back through the training process and remap its entire training program. As trucks become more technologically advanced, the skill levels of the people that are maintaining them are going to have to improve, and we have to stay in constant contact with groups that are geared toward training our people. Ergonomics has been a buzz word in the trucking industries for a number of years now, and trucks are becoming more ergonomically correct. How manufacturers position controls inside of the cab of a truck so drivers don't have to reach that extra two inches, makes a big difference in the way drivers perceive that you are addressing their issues.

Lowry: Waste Industries promotes a healthy balance of work and leisure, while providing career opportunities. We're a family oriented company. We want our employees to enjoy life and have time with their families. We want to provide employees good employment opportunities, but we want a healthy balance of it all. In addition, we want our employees to know that there is a future here and that they don't have to stay in the same position forever. It's up to our employees if they're interested; we'll help provide the tools to get them where they want to go.