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Retention in wood manufacturing

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WMC by Lynn Mackinlay
Lynn MacKinlay is Succeeding President of the Wood Manufacturing Council.
There are woodworking companies that are highly effective in onboarding, retaining and advancing their employees. What are companies doing right to retain workers? If you are an employer that is having challenges with retention, what can you consider? From the article Manufacturing Engagement and Retention Study (Manufacturing Institute), there are several factors that affect retention. I will frame these factors under the headings Pay Scales and Benefits; Leadership and Culture; Quality of Life- At Work and At Home and Interesting Work.

Pay Scales and Benefits
One of the obvious answers to the question of attracting and retaining workers is good pay scales and benefits. Wood manufacturing companies are challenged to compete with other well paying career paths in skilled trades to pay competitive wages. There are a few roles in wood manufacturing that can be lucrative, but there are more that have lower pay scales relative to other skilled trades. While the barriers to entry in terms of credentials are relatively low and training can happen on the job, the opportunity for attaining higher pay scales can also be limited. Obviously, excellent pay scales do create an incentive for people to stay and conversely, poor pay scales and a ceiling on pay can affect retention. Years ago I was working in an architectural millwork shop for a few years in Nova Scotia. One winter we employees were commiserating around the challenges of affording to buy oil for our furnaces. I too was worrying about affording oil, but when I learned that the most senior cabinetmaker, with a great deal of longevity in the company, was also struggling to heat his home, it had a big effect on me. As I was earlier in my career, I began thinking, ‘do I want to spend my life with this company and in 10-20 years still not be able to pay my bills or have a comfortable life?’ That was the beginning of strategizing to depart that company. Not everyone has the privilege to leave. But for me, that was the first nail in the coffin. So, pay scales matter and benefits matter too. It is critical to offer benefits to employees and can have a significant effect on retention. Especially for employees who have families that they could acquire benefits for their whole family. That is a reason to stay.

Leadership and Culture
Surprisingly, pay scales and benefits are not always the number one reason people leave companies. Culture and leadership are arguably the greatest factors that affect retention. As stated in the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium (EMC) article, The Role of Leadership in Fostering Harmony, “In a manufacturing environment, leaders set the foundational rhythm, much like initiating an assembly line. Their behaviours and attitudes sketch the blueprint for the team, signaling how to contribute to a harmonious workspace.” If the leadership contributes to a toxic workplace, does not respect employees and if the culture is unwelcome, if people have a choice, they do not want to endure working in a place that can have a negative affect on their mental health. I was speaking with a young woman who was a third-year apprentice last year and she shared with me that she had just changed employers. The former employer, (a well known furniture manufacturer in the region), had a long-time employee that had angry outbursts, threw things and raged at people. The employer did nothing about this person and allowed him to continue in this fashion. She left after working there for a few years to get away from this environment. The worker was a problem, but the greater problem was the employer inaction. The other part of the story was about machinery being not maintained and unsafe, which also can cause employees to depart. You lose good people to unsafe and unwelcoming workplaces. Safety is critical to the quality of work life.
One of the biggest factors that affect morale and retention is whether employees feel recognized, feel like they are being treated like human beings, feel like they are impacting the company in a good way and feel supported. The MI article described employees feeling good at work when there was an environment that was family oriented and community oriented. When employees feel like a company has engendered a culture of family and employees feel like a company is investing in the community around them it has a positive effect on individuals and morale in general. An example that I can speak to, was in a company I was working for around the time of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. The Canadian government was matching funds for anyone who gave money to the Canadian Red Cross to help those in crisis as a result of this tsunami. As an employee, I pitched to the company that if employees put money in a hat and the company matched the funds then, we donated to Canadian Red Cross, in turn the government matched the funds and we have quadrupled our contribution. The company agreed to that, and I fundraised. We raised several thousand dollars partly because one employee felt enough agency in a company to share an initiative and the company was willing to partner with them to realize their vision. This was smart leadership.
Another important part of leadership and culture, from my lens as a woman who has had their whole career in nontraditional trades, is that when there is a homogeneous culture that has characteristics that have inherent bias like objectifying women and the use of discriminatory language, others do not feel welcome. When employers and managers are reluctant to disrupt the status quo culture or are themselves leading the toxic status quo culture, not only can this be a significant barrier to entry for underrepresented people in that space, but it can also have a big effect on retention. “…having a team with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences can greatly enhance productivity. It's important for leaders to value and encourage this diversity by promoting open communication and inclusivity.” (EMC article)

Quality Of Life at Work and Home
More now than ever in my lifetime, workers are interested in having work and home life balance. Considerations for balance at work and at home have to be front of mind for employers. What are creative solutions, which do not injure the bottom line, yet offer solutions for work life balance. A company I worked for in the early ‘90s in Vancouver allowed employees to opt into working 9-hour days with no overtime and every second Friday we could have a paid day off. For some, this allowed us to plan doctors’ appointments or long weekend getaways. The caveat was when we went to overtime, we may have to rescind our Fridays off and pivot to OT. Most of the time we could expect to have every second Friday off, and it was rotated so not everyone was off at the same time. This was 30 years ago, and it was a progressive idea. Another consideration for people who are tasked with a great deal of invisible labour in their family, (which is often women), is to have flexible work days for anyone who must worry about daycare and school schedules. Then for people who have children, this competing challenge would have less pressure.
One more significant quality of life issue is transportation. There are many people who are excellent workers and would be a great asset to companies, but they do not have the means to have a vehicle. This could be newcomers, single parents, women in general and young people. If employers want to increase their workforce and have diversity in their workforce, considerations for transportation should be on the table. Many wood manufacturing companies big and small are in areas that public transit does not go to. This creates a barrier for people to commit to their work and it can also create safety concerns. Women and 2SLGBTQ people are more often the target of sexual harassment and assault and must be mindful about how they move safely in public spaces. For racialized women, the threat is greater. For women, to be walking a couple of kilometers into an industrial park at 6 a.m., it can increase their risk and extend their day. Creative solutions for transportation could make the quality of life and bring more diverse workers to the industry.
A quote I often hear industrious workers say is the reward for good work is more work. When we identify employees who are hardworking, dependable and have integrity, we often want to continue to rely on them which can cause them to be overburdened and cause burnout. It is important to reward hard work, integrity and enthusiasm. Creative strategies to reward excellent employees as described in The EMC article: Ideas for Rewards In Attendance Programs are to allow people to plan a bonus day off with pay, have their name put in a lottery for compelling incentives like movie tickets, tech items and vacations. This incentivises hard working employees and could also motivate lesser so hardworking employees rather than wearing out your best employees.

Interesting Work
One last consideration to retaining employees is to keep work interesting by offering training, certifications, cross training, apprenticeship and advancement. For employees who are ambitious, curious, need growth and change, sometimes the opportunity to train, get certifications, cross-train are greater incentives than pay scales and benefits. Many people want to be stimulated, grow and advance at work. When I attended a presentation by Muskoka Cabinet Company of integrating robots at the WMS conference in 2023, Luke Elias shared a story of offering incentives to his employees to cross train on the new automated equipment he was integrating. He also offered some financial incentive for them to learn a new skill set. The example he offered was that of a mature worker who performed a certain role in his factory, and he wanted to cross train them on some of the robotic equipment. Another secondary positive outcome is this mature worker will now have a greater skill set to move material around and execute processes without wear and tear on their body which could allow them to 
stay longer on the job and have 
less injury. This is a very smart strategy for retention.
It seems that employers are of two camps when it comes to apprenticeship. There are those who have little interest in apprenticeship and arguably see it as a challenge to their bottom line, and there are those who are passionate about apprenticeship and continue the tradition of apprenticing their workers. I have also learned that some employers have two streams with both apprentices and non-apprentices working side by side in their workforce. They use apprenticeship as an incentive to their workers around performance. If they are registered, they get better pay and obviously work toward their credential as well. If those new employees demonstrate certain attributes and benchmarks in their process, they can see an apprenticeship pathway in their future. What a great strategy for agency. There are lots of good reasons to pursue apprenticeship and this can also help with retention in organizations and yet if some employees can choose to not seek apprenticeship and remain in the work that can also contribute to retention. All things are possible.
The WMC has had 48 participants in four different parts of Canada, in our pre-employment training program in 2023-24. Our promise to these diverse youth is if they work hard, have good employability skills, complete 12 weeks of training and 12 weeks of work placement, that industry wants them, and they can have 
successful careers. Help us keep 
that promise for these diverse youth to have a good life in wood manufacturing, by building and sustaining people-centered, interesting and 
welcoming workplaces.

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