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Hiring and Retaining Employees with Better Training

By Intertek Alchemy   |   
Q&A with Audra Shelton

Q&A with Ajinomoto’s Audra Shelton

The great resignation continues to roll on as a record 4.5 million people reportedly quit their jobs last November. Now every industry is challenged more than ever to hire and retain enough workers to meet demands.

This is especially true of companies with operations in small towns like Joplin, Missouri, which is home to one of Ajinomoto Foods North America’s nine U.S. plants. The Joplin facility maintains a 24-hour production line to create restaurant-grade foods like fried pickles, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks. 

To keep operations in play, the company competes with ButterBall, General Mills, and several other food and non-food manufacturers to attract and retain workers in an area with a population of just over 50,000. These companies realize that it’s impossible to win over workers with pay and signing bonuses alone. In some cases, employees have been known to jump from employer to employer, working just long enough to collect their signing bonuses and move on to the next job.

We sat down with Ajinomoto Training Administrator Audra Shelton to find out how the company is coping with the labor shortage by training and investing in its employees.

Intertek Alchemy:  Can you give us a little background about yourself, Ajinomoto Joplin’s operations, and the company’s challenges today?

Audra Shelton: Sure. I develop and coordinate training for more than 300 employees who are responsible for producing an average of more than 180,000 pounds of food products a day. On a really good day, that number might reach 250,000 pounds.

The only way we can make this happen is through our employees. We know that we’re competing with other manufacturers in the area that at any time might offer bigger signing bonuses or more money. But over the last few years with Intertek Alchemy, we’ve been able to attract and retain talent with a strong training program that makes employees feel valued. And we teach them how to do their jobs properly so they can go home safe every day. We like to make them feel like they belong and play an important role in something that’s highly successful.

We focus on our people because we know they make the difference. Without our employees, we don’t have anything.

Audra Shelton training
Shelton uses Alchemy Player to bring training to workers at their stations.

Intertek Alchemy: How is your training different from other companies?

Shelton: Our training programs create employee loyalty by offering workers the ability to develop new skills and understand how their efforts play into the company’s overall success. We’re working to incentivize employees to cross-train into new roles so that we have a workforce that can immediately fill different roles when other employees become ill or quit.

Intertek Alchemy:  How is Intertek Alchemy helping your training programs be successful?

Shelton: We’ve been working with Intertek Alchemy for four years, focusing the last year on developing and implementing a new employee training program. We use Creator to transform and personalize existing courses from the Alchemy library, as well as create new ones specific to our plant. And we use Alchemy courses like leadership training for our frontline workers. We’ve also been using the Alchemy Coach tablets for several years to ensure employees perform their jobs properly. And recently, we’ve been tying this all together with the Alchemy Playbook app, which has made a huge difference by bringing real-time training directly to the production floor.

The components of the Alchemy platform all work together so well. Alchemy courses cover a broad area of topics that relate to our work. Playbook breaks training down specifically to our machines. It also plays a role in making sure employees understand their training and follow through with the support of their supervisors. Employees feel more valued when their supervisors check-in to make sure they’re performing procedures properly. Alchemy makes it easier for supervisors to give positive feedback and help them excel in their positions.

It all rolls in together and really creates a whole picture for everything to work out smoothly and standardize our training process.

Intertek Alchemy:  How does all of this help keep operations running during labor shortages and quarantines?

Shelton: First, Intertek Alchemy helps ensure everyone has the same training across all three shifts. So, no matter their shift, all employees can feel confident about working in an equally safe environment. That makes it easier to recruit them to work different shifts or perform other roles when needed. Playbook also enables us always to know what training every employee has right down to what specific jobs and tasks they are qualified to perform. And if they lack that training, we can provide it on the floor on a tablet, in front of the equipment they’re using, and without WiFi.

Intertek Alchemy:  How does good training help retain employees?

Shelton: We’ve developed our training to help provide a path to grow and become leaders within Ajinomoto, which makes them more likely to stay with the company. I think when employees see that we’ll invest in training for them that they have the ability to grow with their jobs. Providing a vision and a growth plan creates a stepping stone to moving forward within the company. By using Alchemy Playbook and Coach, they can see the criteria of what they need to do to move into that next position and advance quicker into leadership roles.

A lot of this success comes from the cross-training program that Intertek Alchemy has helped us create. With all the improvements we’ve made in our training program, we see more people skilling up quicker. We start cross-training on day one. Some employees who have been here just three or four months are already training as backups for the more technical positions. So, it makes the process a lot easier and quicker for them to learn.

It’s important for employees to cross-train so they don’t feel like they’re always stuck in one spot. On the same hand, it helps us fill positions when someone calls in sick. When we cross-train and let them gain knowledge, we provide a means to move into higher positions and develop a career instead of just a day-to-day job.

Intertek Alchemy: Besides building an environment of inclusion and growth within Ajinomoto, how else are you incentivizing employees to stay with the company?

Shelton:  We are currently working on a skills-for-performance pay program using Playbook and Coach to help provide greater pay for employees who take on new skills. The program tracks their learnings and the courses they complete, which would then result in pay increases. We feel this is important because it helps compete on the pay level with other companies, and it rewards employees who learn more and take on greater responsibilities.

Some companies might pay more just based on the number of years employees spend with them. In those cases, a junior employee who has shown initiative and done more might still get paid less than the longer-tenured employee who has maintained the status quo. We want our employees to know they’re valued for the knowledge they are gaining, and that’s really why we started the Tier Pay for Skill Program.

The Alchemy platform plays a huge role in our Tier Pay for Skill Program by organizing all the training courses required for each position and providing a view of the growth plan that employees can look forward to. So, it pulls everything together and makes sure that each employee receives the standardized training needed to develop more skills and advance within Ajinomoto.

Intertek Alchemy: These are impressive and innovative programs. Have you had experience setting these up before?

Shelton: No, not at all. In fact, I used to work on the production floor and advanced over these last few years into the training administrator position. The Intertek Alchemy solutions have made it easier to create and roll out these programs, but the big help came through my Alchemy consultant Kristin Kastrup. 

When I started working with Kristin, I had a lot of great ideas of what needed to be done to improve training. Kristin listened to those ideas and goals and helped me funnel them down into the next steps. She helped me figure out how to use Playbook and Coach to make my big vision happen. I just explained my vision and went out on the floor with her and showed her what we had in place. She quickly understood what we needed and was able to work with me to make the programs successful.

If I had three words to describe her, I would say welcoming, non-judgmental and easy-going. Working with an Intertek Alchemy consultant, I felt right at home, especially with not having a lot of experience. It was just easy for me to work with her and understand the process and where I needed to go.

Intertek Alchemy: What do you see as far as the future of your training program?

Shelton: Really it is mostly to follow through on our vision and to keep improving. We’ve already improved our training so much. I wish we had training like this back when I worked on the floor. But we need to keep the momentum moving forward, because our employees want it. The good news is there’s not a lot of limits with Alchemy. Anything you can imagine you can probably do with it.

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