Many managers feel uncomfortable talking to direct reports about their career goals. But they avoid it at their peril, particularly when hiring millennials, and especially in these times of poaching and record low unemployment.
How often do managers and co-workers in metal fabrication talk about career paths? According to Mark Ernst, principal at Artesia, Calif.-based Ernst Enterprises LLC, probably not too often.
Ernst has talked at numerous conferences and other industry events. He’s worked with various metal fabrication operations over the years. In his experience, talking about careers can be a touchy exercise, often not something managers feel they need to put on the front burner—particularly if the shop has jobs that needed to get out the door yesterday. “Most companies in metal fabrication are small. They’re very entrepreneurial. Many say, ‘We’re too busy. We must keep working.’”
But fabricators avoid talking about career paths at their peril, particularly in these times of poaching and record low unemployment. Finding talent has always been a challenge in this business. It stands to reason that holding on to talent should be a priority. As Ernst explained, managers won’t always succeed, but a process still should be put in place.
Charting an employee’s course in an organization—so-called career pathing—seems difficult mainly because it requires accomplishing a few not-so-easy steps first. What are those steps, exactly?
Ernst broke them down this way: Step one, you need good, well-trained managers. Step two, you need managers at every level to set clear performance expectations and give their direct reports proper feedback. Step three, you need to define (at a general level) potential career paths, and they don’t all need to lead to the management ranks. Step four, you need to talk with employees about their career goals and about what they need to do to meet them. Step five, you need to be honest and practical.
Step 1: Good Management Starts at the Top
Good management isn’t rocket science, but it is a subtle science and, according to Ernst, a rarity in the business world, including metal fabrication. That’s because quite often the people who rise through the ranks happen to excel at a certain job—welding, engineering, or anything else—yet never were given management training or experience. Similarly, some at family businesses may inherit their job without sufficient preparation or training.
Leadership training must start at the very top of the organization, which is the chief executive and the executive team. “If leaders don’t walk the talk, then people will think that any kind of leadership training you do is a joke,” Ernst said, adding that he’s worked with certain companies with this very problem. “They send employees to leadership training, then return to the plant only to find that their own bosses don’t practice what they just learned.”
During his educational sessions at previous shows, he has talked about how he knows about welding power sources, different welding processes, and how to tack weld; but he doesn’t have years of experience welding, and he hasn’t been trained, so he certainly wouldn’t qualify for any welding job. “Hiring me as a welder would be like hiring an amazing welder to be a manager.”
Of course, there’s no reason why that amazing welder wouldn’t make an amazing manager, if given the right training and opportunities. But the training needs to happen first, and it can’t be done overnight.
He also has asked attendees how many “terrific bosses” they’ve had over their careers. Some hold up three fingers, but most hold up only one or two. “Then I ask them, ‘What made that manager terrific?’” Almost all of them say one of four things: They didn’t micromanage; they supported their workers; they acted with integrity; and they were subject-matter experts.
If a good employee leaves, quite often it’s because their supervisor and the general management team didn’t meet one or more of these criteria. Ernst described a hypothetical (though very plausible) situation in which a press brake operator continually needs to help another operator with rework. He complains to his bosses, but nothing changes. That other operator has lunch with his bosses; he gets along; he’s popular; he may even be a family friend of the company owners.
When that popular operator is promoted to supervisor, the talented operator quits. Obviously, the manager wasn’t acting with integrity, wasn’t an expert (or he would have noticed the operator’s poor performance), and didn’t support his workers.
Not every situation is this clear-cut, but Ernst’s point is simple: Bad management leads to poor processes (with the status quo rarely if ever being questioned), a toxic culture, and, ultimately, a struggling company.
Step 2: Set Clear Performance Expectations
It’s difficult to talk about employee career plans if current job performance isn’t well-measured. And as Ernst explained, measuring job performance takes more than buying a generic form. “People buy these forms and think, ‘Well, now I have a performance review.’”
Elements of the performance review should pertain directly to an employee’s job. If some generic “teamwork” question is on the form, and yet employees in a certain department don’t work in teams, how helpful is that teamwork question?
Most important, Ernst said, the annual performance review shouldn’t be long or difficult, because ideally a manager should have talked with direct reports about their performance several times during the year. After all, if employees experience problems or go above and beyond, a year is a long time to wait for feedback.
Say a supervisor meets with a press brake operator once a year. For months that operator has underperformed; his productivity is low, his reject rate is high. Why wasn’t this problem caught earlier? Conversely, say an employee spearheads an effort to make material handling easier in a certain department, perhaps by building a new fixture table. This effort saved the company thousands, and yet managers didn’t take note until months later at the annual performance review.
Step 3: Identify Different Career Paths
Say a star press brake operator is promoted to supervisor—without any training or preparation. The brake operator says he wants a promotion because, of course, that’s where the money is. But if it wasn’t about money, would that person really want to be a manager?
For this reason, Ernst said, a company should have more than one path to better pay. Some people may like hands-on work; they may even like being an informal leader (the “go-to” person) in a department; but they really don’t want to be a manager. Ernst used the Army rank of sergeant major as an analogy: one who provides tremendous value and certainly had a career ladder to climb, but still isn’t a commissioned officer.
Similar thinking applies to the organizational structure of a fabricator. An experienced press brake operator may choose to pursue the supervisor route, or be promoted to a higher-level operator or setup person. The titles could describe the opportunities available (Press Brake Operator III, IV, V, etc.), though each title bump should come with its own pay bump as well. Ernst cautioned that these promotions should be given solely based on performance, not seniority.
He added that some companies, particularly small ones like most custom fabricators, need not treat job titles and pay ranges as “the rule of law.” Pay should be based on performance and how a person contributes to the organization. (For more on this, see Step 5.)
Step 4: Ask About Career Plans
“Think about it,” Ernst said. “How many managers have talked to you about your career? Most managers are afraid, because they feel they might not want to hear the answer. But avoiding it and putting your head in the ground like an ostrich won’t make the answer go away.”
Ernst emphasized that effective career pathing takes more than just asking employees about their career plans. The third step (identify career paths) provides a rough road map; the first two steps, good management and setting clear expectations, provide the foundation. If the shop runs chaotically with managers yelling and people panicking, career pathing doesn’t do much good. Ask someone where they want to be in five years in these situations, and they’ll likely think, “Well, not here, that’s for sure.”
Deep conversations about careers don’t jump out of the blue. They evolve. People shape their career plans over many conversations. During formal and informal performance evaluations, managers talk about the employees’ strengths and weaknesses, and where those strengths could lead one day.
The career path conversation becomes a normal part of the employee evaluation. If the manager sees that the employee is an informal leader on the shop floor, he doesn’t ignore it; he mentions it to the employee as he talks about the future.
Asking what employees want for a career is just a first step. The next step involves coaching and helping employees meet their goals. “I usually use a spreadsheet and perform a gap analysis,” Ernst said. “You show what the employee already has, and then detail the knowledge and experience the employee needs to meet his or her career goals. The gap is the difference between the two.” If, say, a press brake operator wants to become a supervisor someday, a manager can provide coaching, offer opportunities to lead on specific projects, and identify what kind of training the person needs.
Such openness mitigates surprises. Consider a top-performing machine operator who works at a fabricator for a decade. His boss never discusses his future, never provides thorough and constructive critiques. The operator just knows he’s good because everyone seems to rely on his work, and people enjoy working with him. One day he approaches his boss and says he wants to apply for a job as a supervisor, either immediately or when one becomes open.
His boss has second thoughts. This guy is a great machine operator, but he just doesn’t have the skills needed to become a manager. He could learn them, but his strengths as a machine operator are unmatched on the floor and incredibly valuable. His boss explains this, and the operator is shocked, disheartened, and soon he’s looking for another job.
What if that manager had talked about the operator’s strengths and weaknesses over time? What if he discussed future opportunities outside management (that is, the “individual contributor” career path)? If the person knows he excels as a topnotch operator, and he knows about future opportunities, he may be less set on becoming a supervisor.
Still, Ernst added that if the person is dead-set on becoming a manager, he or she shouldn’t be denied the opportunity. The manager can coach and point to training opportunities outside work. The operator still may not land a management job at the company. But because the manager and operator have communicated openly, not landing that management job wouldn’t be a shock. “It’s about being open and honest,” Ernst said.
Step 5: Be Honest and Practical
“This is often the greatest challenge, and it’s one reason that managers hate having career path discussions,” Ernst said. “It requires honesty. At a small company, it may be impossible for an employee to make a jump to another role, just because the organization is too flat. But again, not talking about it doesn’t make the problem go away.”
A small organization can have only so many chiefs. In these cases, managers need to be honest. Ernst gave this example: “One might say, ‘You know, we don’t have an opening here for that supervisor position, and we’re likely not going to have an opening for years. If you choose to leave and gain experience elsewhere, that’s fine. In fact, I’d be happy to coach you and tell you what you need to prepare. But when a position does open here, I hope you’d consider coming back.’”
The employee might leave. Some talent turnover is inevitable. On the other hand, the employee may have second thoughts. He’s worked well with his boss for years. He respects the executive team, his co-workers, and his company. That’s a lot to give up, and there’s a chance he may stay, despite the scarcity of management and supervisory positions.
The scarcity of management positions shouldn’t mean a scarcity of opportunity. In fact, as Ernst emphasized, a greater opportunity to contribute is one thing a small company can offer more than a larger company. Quite often employees are less restricted by job descriptions. With the right structure and incentives, people can end up tackling numerous challenges and offering tremendous value, even if they haven’t climbed very far up the org chart.
Ernst added that the same thing applies to salary ranges. “An HR department may say, ‘That’s the top we pay for this position.’ In my view, you’ve got to be willing to look at individuals who add value.”
Say an assistant department supervisor is being groomed to become top supervisor once his boss retires in five years. Her job title dictates her pay range, though, and a competing fabricator tries to poach her. She looks at the pay difference and just can’t turn down the opportunity.
Could this have been avoided? According to Ernst, in certain cases, yes. An employee shouldn’t use another job offer as a bargaining chip for a raise (though this of course happens a lot). And sure, sometimes a company really can’t afford to pay significantly more.
But if the employee is paid enough—perhaps more than the typical “assistant department supervisor”— and enjoys the job and the company, she may think twice before jumping ship. In other words, the employee is less likely to be poached. As Ernst explained, it goes back to looking at an employee’s contribution, not a job title’s “market” pay range or employee tenure.
Why Do Talented People Quit?
Talented people don’t always leave for more money. In fact, Ernst cited research that stated otherwise. “The Gallup company said that the most influential factor that drives employee morale is the supervisor. Yet we put people in these roles with the least amount of training.”
This, he said, is why having good managers is the first step. A small fabricator may not have the most expansive org chart, but good managers still can create an environment where talented, ambitious people want to spend their careers.