I recently read that “great countries find a way to solve great problems.” It made me think about how St. Cloud-based Nova Flex is tackling the daunting challenge of training and retaining employees.

Nova Flex’s approach, described in insightful detail by writer Suzy Frisch on page 10 of this magazine, shows manufacturers a way to use training to keep all employees engaged over the long term. Enterprise Minnesota talent expert Michele Neale considers the LED lighting manufacturer as one of her star clients. “They totally changed how I think about and work with clients,” she says.

For years Neale has helped manufacturers create a complete team: building a roster, developing best practices for teaching skills, and using a written “playbook” to bring consistency to production and training. She’s also refined best practices for training the trainers: identifying those best suited to train employees, avoiding common training mistakes, and employing a four-step method she coaches for teaching a new skill.

Neale started by sharing best training practices with Nova Flex’s six-person management team. She required each participant to train someone else on the team while she observed and offered feedback. “I’m really focused on the trainer, not the learner,” she says.

Participants then wrote out the steps in each stage of a particular job process. Finally, Neale asked the team to discuss next steps, and that’s where Nova Flex set itself apart. The group agreed to meet every Friday afternoon for an hour to review team members’ job breakdowns.

At a six-month follow-up visit, Neale was shocked. “They put every one of their job breakdowns in a binder and created tabs based on the various departments within the company,” she says. “They now have their entire production floor in a binder that shows how to teach people each process.”

Before Nova Flex’s transformation, new hires typically required two weeks to get up to speed before they could add value. When they did the job breakdowns and tried it with new people, they found repeating a process three times, as typically recommended, wasn’t enough. They boosted that to 10 times in a row, allowing a new employee to add value after just two hours.

What’s so exciting about Nova Flex’s process is how it can be duplicated by any manufacturer. The intensive guidance and accountability Neale provides helps companies determine best training practices for their own processes and transform their cultures by engaging employees from day one of their employment.

We all know that engaged employees have higher rates of satisfaction and retention. Neale’s coaching also helps manufacturers address a significant shift in employee demographics. Many manufacturers used to have a bell curve population: a few employees with 1-3 years of experience, a few nearing retirement, and the bulk in the middle years, Neale explains.

Now, a manufacturer’s employee population often looks more like a fishing hook, with a few employees early in their careers, a lot nearing retirement, and not so many in between. This increases the pressure on employers to effectively train, cross-train existing employees, and document job practices to achieve quality and consistency goals.

For most organizations, finding top talent to drive current and future growth is the problem of this generation. A glance at several years’ worth of data from our annual State of Manufacturing® survey shows this challenge persists in good economic times and bad, before, during, and after a global pandemic, and regardless of which political party controls Congress, the White House, and state government.

Consistent, high-quality training is a key step in solving the talent problem, and Neale is eager to help. “Let’s train your trainers and help you spread this throughout your organization so that you can reap all these benefits,” she says.

Return to the Spring 2024 issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine.