Making the most of their people

By Helen Frances

Stevenson Group sees employees like Raymond Leung as its most important resource. Photo / Stephen Barker
Stevenson Group sees employees like Raymond Leung as its most important resource. Photo / Stephen Barker

Firms find valued staff make valuable staff, writes Helen Frances

Staff at Stevenson Group don't get tied up in knots when they go to class. But they do work out ways to untie themselves as they brush up on literacy, numeracy, communication and other skills.

Fun, problem-solving activities that involve untangling string are part of a foundation skills course called Stepping Up Together that Stevenson Group has tailor-made for its staff.

Chief executive Mark Franklin's philosophy in life is that people are the most important resource.

"When you help people understand themselves, you get a better outcome at work. That's what Stepping Up Together is all about."

He says the company tries to choose people it thinks might be champions and take the learning back into the workplace. These people will coach this year's participants and support employees with literacy needs.

Stevenson Group worked with The Learning Wave to develop and deliver the five-day programme, which was attended by 52 employees over 14 weeks last year. Stevenson was highly commended at the EEO Trust Work and Life Awards 2011.

Human resources manager Geoff White says that in the past, training for frontline employees such as mechanics, drivers and operators had focused mainly on technical training.

"Many of our employees left school without qualifications and have really valued the programme's emphasis on skills such as how to communicate effectively, budgeting and nutritional awareness," he says. "Our new training initiative aimed to provide foundation skills that would benefit them, their families and the company."

Stevenson Group services the quarrying, mining, engineering and construction industries, employing more than 500 people from diverse backgrounds in New Zealand and out of a small office in Australia.

White says participants work in small groups from across three divisions to encourage interaction between separate parts of the business.

"A real benefit of having an embedded system is the flexibility around content," he says. "We used it to promote our company values, interpersonal skills, self-awareness, critical thinking, problem-solving, personal budgeting and wellness."

Business benefits are noticeable after six months, with fewer disciplinary hearings, lower employee turnover and fewer sick days.

"Injury rates are also down and it seems that employees are taking more responsibility for their wellness."

Feedback has been positive. Employees say they have better communication skills and understand themselves and co-workers better.

Stevenson has developed a frontline manager's programme for course graduates and is looking to make literacy and numeracy practices part of its induction and learning initiatives.

Snap Fresh Foods employs 149 staff in Auckland, Rangiriri and Nelson, growing and processing salads, baby carrots, sprouts and dressings.

HR manager Amy de la Cruz says English is the second or third language of 38 per cent of staff.

"In the processing plant in Otahuhu, 60 per cent of staff can't speak or understand much English. "

De la Cruz says it was vital for the business to introduce a literacy programme, "to help our staff grow and help our business grow. In the second year staff were so keen we had to tell them, 'Sorry we only have 15 places', so you have to be quick".

After Snap Fresh Foods introduced communication training for its staff productivity rose 27 per cent because of less wastage on the salad line.

The company's safety record also improved, which meant it got a 20 per cent reduction in ACC levies.

Her employer's flexible approach to work has made career progression and motherhood a happy combination for Debbie Fellows, a geotechnical engineer at URS New Zealand.

The engineering consultancy's approach to flexibility won it accolades at the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards last year.

"My career has developed significantly while I've been working part-time," says Fellows. "What URS has developed is quite unique; work and life provisions are an inherent part of company culture."

Fellows works 26 hours over two long days and two short days every week, with Wednesdays off, and she sometimes works extra from home.

HR Manager Tony Brown says the URS workforce is 64 per cent male, but women hold a quarter of its technical roles. This is higher than the industry average of 13 per cent as reported in the 2006 Census.

URS staff stay an average of 5.6 years, which Brown says is "remarkable" given the retention challenges the engineering sector faces.

He says flexible working options are partly responsible for this achievement. "Our arrangements work because they're driven by management's trust and commitment to good work-life balance and, in turn, the company benefits by staff retention and keeping the skills in the business."

EEO Trust chief executive Michael Barnett notes that, "people looking for work these days are more savvy - they are looking for environments where money is not the only issue. [Environments that] value equality, fairness and work-life balance approaches such as flexibility".

Barnett thinks employers have a way to go in harnessing the richness of our workforce diversity.

"We are doing a lot better than we used to ... Companies that are importing and exporting see the wisdom of employing people who reflect those with whom they're doing business. You have staff who know how people in that market think."

Entries for the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards 2012 close on Thursday May 17. Organisations of any size or sector can enter, whether or not they are members of the EEO Trust.

- NZ Herald

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