Attracting and Retaining Hourly Employees

As the workforce evolves, making hourly workers feel part of the mission is important

by Brian Devine, President and CEO, Ignite Industrial Professionals
Published in The MHEDA Journal; Q2 2023

Hourly employees think differently about their jobs than salaried employees, period. I did not realize that until 2007, when I initi­ated a national survey of hourly employees to identify their preferences and priorities related to their jobs. Up to that point, I as­sumed that most people thought about their jobs the same way that I thought about my job. I was wrong.

One of the most basic things that we learned from the thousands of hourly employees, including manufacturing workers, who completed the survey over the last 16 years, is that the starting pay rate of a job is the single most impor­tant aspect they consider when looking for a job. When this same question was asked to salaried workers. the most com­mon response is that they want to en­joy the work. For these salaried employ­ees. compensation or pay ranked third or fourth in terms of importance when look­ing for a job.

So, why does pay rate rank first for hour­ly employees and third or fourth for sala­ried employees? Think back to that psy­chology class you took in high school. You probably learned about Maslow’s Hierar­chy of Needs. In 1943, psychologist Abra­ham Maslow published a paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” where he identified five basic levels of human needs.

Starting with our most basic need ! Lev­el 1) for food and shelter, the next basic need (Level 2) is safety and security, and the subsequent levels include social rela­tionships, self-esteem, and finally, self-ac­tualization. It’s only when people stabilize their lives in one level that they are able to move to the next. Many hourly employees have such modest incomes that they spend most of their lives in the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are living pay­check to paycheck, just trying to pay the rent and praying for no unanticipated ex­penses to pop up, like a car repair or an ex­tra $20 for a child’s school field trip.

In large measure, salaried employees have their most basic needs covered. They have enough money to pay for groceries, put gas in the car, and pay their rent or mortgage. When they hit a financial down­turn, they can use credit cards to get them through a short-term crisis or emergency. Many hourly employees simply don’t have that as an option.

Companies often boast about impressive benefits packages: health insurance, 401k, and tuition reimbursement. A 401 k is so far beyond the grasp of many hourly employees that when managers boast about the company’s robust 401k matching funds pro­vision, the hourly workers think, ‘Tm just try­ing to pay my rent next week, I’m not trying to save for retirement 20 years from now.” 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe executives have only the very best intentions when they determine the benefits packages their com­pany offers employees. But what the benefits manager may not consider is the fact that the medical insurance plan requires a contribu­tion by the employee, thereby reducing his or her take-home pay. That $30 weekly pay­roll deduction for health insurance may be needed for more immediate expenses, like gas money for the week.

My recommendation is for companies to review their benefits package from the per­spectives of both hourly and salaried work­ers. While the 401k match may be appeal­ing to many salaried employees, some of the hourly employees may prefer a subsidy to help cover the high cost of children’s day­care, or they may prefer to have the cost of public transportation subsidized or be pro­vided a discount on basic mobile phone or internet service.

Over the last 40-plus years, the social con­tract between employee and employer has changed dramatically. Forty years ago, it was not uncommon for someone to go to work for a company and expect to retire from that same company, 30 years later, with a mod­est pension. In my opinion, two big shifts in commerce changed that: 1) the offshoring of manufacturing work; and 2) the dramatic increase of mergers and acquisitions.

When companies closed their manufactur­ing operations in the states and moved them to China and other countries, primarily to lower labor costs, that sent a loud message to the manufacturing workforce: “Your job is not guaranteed, even if you have worked here for 20 years.”

In the mergers and acquisitions space, when one company acquires another, there is a financial motive to eliminate any redun­dancies in the newly combined company, and that often means eliminating positions and reducing the number of employees. That also sent a message: “Your job is not guaran­teed, regardless of your performance.”

The unintended consequence of those two commercial trends eventually pro­grammed workers to become less loyal to their companies. I often remind executives that employee loyalty mirrors employer loy­alty. If companies are not loyal to their em­ployees, it’s unrealistic to think that employ­ees will be Joyal to their employers. That is one of the factors that led to the Great Res­ignation so prevalent during the pandemic.

In addition to the change in workers’ mindsets over the last few decades, anoth­er big challenge faces the United States’ la­bor force: math. More specifically, numbers and percentages.

From a numbers standpoint, the birthrate in the U.S. has declined from 23.7 per 1,000 people in 1960 to 10.9 per 1,000 people in 2020 !according to the U.S. Census Bureau}. That statistic creates a dearth in the sheer number of workers available.

From a percentage standpoint, the num­ber of people in each generation who attend college is increasing. Assuming that attend­ing college indicates more people would prefer a white-collar job over a blue-collar job, the blue-collar workforce is shrinking dramatically. According to the Bureau of La­bor Statistics, 46 percent of baby boomers attended college, leaving 29.7 million peo­ple available for blue-collar jobs. Fifty-seven percent of Gen X’ers attended college, and 67 percent of millennials attended college, leaving 15.2 million people available for blue-collar jobs. The blue-collar workforce declined by 50 percent in just two gener­ations.

As an employer, the following three rec­ommendations can help attract and retain hourly workers in this very competitive la­bor market:

1. Survey your hourly employees to de­termine their priorities and their preferenc­es. I’ll be happy to share the baseline ques­tions you should ask.

2. Review your compensation and HR policies from the perspective of your hourly employees. If you have mandatory overtime, I encourage you to eliminate it and switch to voluntary overtime. If your attendance policy does not provide enough flexibility for workers to attend their child’s kinder­garten play or soccer match occasionally, without incurring an attendance infrac­tion, change it. If your pay rates are not competitive for the market, increase them. 

3. Demonstrate genuine respect every day, on every shift, for the hard work ex­erted by your essential workers. It costs nothing for a supervisor or a manager to stand at the time clock at the end of the shift and say “thank you” or “we appreciate you” to every single person as they clock out. 

In summary, it’s important to realize that there is a chasm between the senior ex­ecutives of a company and their essential hourly workers. I often say that there is a big difference between the people who shower before work compared to the peo­ple who shower after work, and it’s incum­bent upon leadership to recognize that and bridge the gap.

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