NEW YORK -- Concerns about employee turnover and on-the-job safety have spurred supermarkets to develop comprehensive warehouse training programs, designed to retain safe, efficient employees.
Retailers that have implemented warehouse training programs report fewer injuries and better employee retention. These retailers also agree that well-trained employees are happier employees.
In the physically demanding warehouse environment, some retailers use prehire screening to determine a candidate's fitness for the job. Prior to hiring a warehouse employee, Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., gives candidates a functional capacity test, an ergonomics test and a prehiring physical.
Tom Bird, director of warehousing for the chain explained that these tests are not discriminatory, and are directly related to the job employees are going to perform. Once they're hired, safety is stressed during training.
"If you walk in off the street and try to do the work that's expected, you can get hurt," said Bird. "We want to make sure the individual is in good physical condition along with being productive and accurate."
Supermarkets focusing on safety during training are reporting positive results. For example, Marty Baker, director of warehousing for Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, said that since implementing the company's training program two years ago, reports of injuries and workers' compensation claims have gone down.
"We're concentrating a lot on safety because of the cost of workers' compensation. If you have an employee, and you don't train him on safety, eventually he'll get hurt, and all of a sudden you have an employee with a work-comp claim," said Baker.
Executives at Hy-Vee kept the expense of turnover in mind as it developed its warehouse training program.
"Our goal was to develop an efficient and good employee who will stay with us. By the time you interview, go through the paperwork and put somebody on the floor, you're spending anywhere from $700 to $1,000 on an employee. And if you don't train them right, that's pretty much money just thrown away," said Baker.
He noted that since Hy-Vee implemented its training program two years ago, full-time turnover has diminished significantly. Hy-Vee still has a problem retaining its part-time employees, but even that's going down. Baker attributes declining turnover directly to proper training.
"I think because of the training, and the orientation we put them through, they get an idea of exactly what they're getting into," he said.
Training programs that establish a one-to-one connection with new employees are being credited with improving employee retention. For example, Bird credits the "mentoring" portion of Price Chopper's warehouse training program, implemented six years ago, with retaining employees.
"We use the mentoring program to help [the new employee] assimilate into the workforce. I think that more than anything else, the mentoring program has helped minimize or decrease our turnover," said Bird.
During an employee's first 120 days with Price Chopper, he or she is assigned a mentor. Bird described the mentor as a long-term employee with a positive approach to his job, an ability to communicate and a desire to build a solid workforce. The mentor answers the new employee's questions and helps alleviate feelings of uncertainty.
"A lot of times the new guy coming into our environment doesn't want to approach the supervisor with a question. But he will approach another hourly guy," said Bird.
Bird admitted that turnover is still a problem in the warehouse, but that it has decreased significantly. He added that Price Chopper is considering whether to include drug and alcohol abuse testing in its training program. These problems may be related to turnover, he said.
Mike Murphy, director of transportation at Affiliated Foods, Elwood, Kan., said that since the company implemented its current warehouse training program within the past two years, there has been a marked difference in employees' attitudes, as well as productivity. Affiliated focuses on the "big picture" during training, making employees feel as if they're an important part of the whole system.
Murphy believes that if an employee feels he is an important part of an organization, he's happier and more likely to want to stay in his job. Associated's training program tries to convey this message, along with using positive reinforcement.
"With today's people, drill-sergeant tactics do not work. They'll tell you to stick it, and they'll walk out," Murphy said.
Other retailers have discarded drill-sergeant tactics in favor of programs that are comprehensive and sensitive to the needs of the new employee.
For example, at Hy-Vee, new employees receive a combination of one-to-one training, practical experience within the warehouse and classroom training. They then enter a 180-hour build-up period, which equals about five or six weeks, where they implement what they've learned. "Between week one and the end of 180 hours, each week we have a printout, showing us how they're doing and what they're doing," said Baker. "If we see any problems, we bring them in and do more training with them. Any time they think they have problems, or they have questions, they're encouraged to seek help or seek some more training," explained Baker.
Affiliated Foods has a name for its warehouse training method: the "Preferred Method." Murphy said the philosophy behind the Preferred Method is that although Affiliated expects a certain amount of work to be done, work is expected to be done in a safe and proper manner.
"The Preferred Method is the proper way to do a job -- not only in terms of productivity, but also in quality and safety," said Murphy.
He explained that new employees are initially shown, by a trainer, how to do a job properly. Then for about a week they are set free in the warehouse to perform the job. After a week, the trainer comes back in to see if the new employees are performing their duties the Preferred Method way.
"Typically, it's going to take them two to three weeks until they're up to speed. The [trainer] tells them not to expect to set the world on fire the first day because we want them to learn the job correctly, and speed is going to happen [eventually]. That is just a natural progression into the job," said Murphy.