Television has its fill of shows glamorizing the jobs of cops, lawyers and doctors.
But not one involves the routine of a warehouse order picker.
In a world awash in the high-profile drama of courtrooms and ER scrubs, the food industry has a problem when it comes to attracting -- and retaining -- a quality workforce.
These labor concerns for the retail and wholesale distribution operations were one of the main themes addressed at the recently concluded 2001 Productivity show in Houston.
Nowhere is this more evident than in logistical support operations, many said.
Today's youth are loath to sacrifice their weekends and evenings to grueling manual labor. In some cases even offers of $16 per hour is not convincing them.
As managers compromise on competence and experience, high turnover, chronic absenteeism and accident-prone employees are problems for warehouse and transport operations industrywide, officials said.
Yet some within the industry have made real progress, focusing on innovative recruitment strategies, internal processes and respecting their workers more.
Kathleen Toohey, vice president of human resources, Roundy's Markets, Pewaukee, Wis., said that her company has seen a "very substantial" decrease in the turnover rate of casual warehouse employees since the implementation of an aggressive pre-employment screening program in 1996.
Speaking at the recent Productivity Convention & Exposition, Toohey said that retention starts with recruiting.
The company uses several tools to assess the character of potential employees, such as integrity interviews that ask questions about past performance at other jobs while delving into issues of honesty and conscience, she said.
In addition, the company administers a written "test" meant to provide a general profile of an interviewee's overall probity and reliability, she explained.
Taken together, the two are a fair indicator of somebody's broad, moral compass, she said.
To further root out potential problems, the company runs a criminal background check, with the written consent of the applicant.
In Wisconsin, this service is available for free online through the Wisconsin Circuit Court.
For out-of-state background checks, Roundy's uses a service called InfoMart, for which there is a fee.
The company also administers a general skills test -- to measure things like language barriers and literacy -- as well as physical examinations and ergonomics assessments to test soundness of body, strength and endurance.
It is important that these tests are adjusted for age, sex and weight to ensure fairness. They should also be geared toward the specific job function the employee will be asked to perform, she said.
According to Toohey, these measures are worth the minimal costs. "It pays in the long run to know who you're hiring," she said.
For instance, employees whose physical skills have not been adequately tried are an "accident waiting to happen, and will end up on workman's comp rolls anyway."
Mark Foster, vice president, supply chain, Supervalu, Minneapolis, presented a similar quandary from the transport side as he addressed the solitary and unglamorous image of a truck driver.
While some may be attracted by the promise of relative independence, it is becoming harder to interest young people in life on the road, Foster said.
Foster addressed the labor issues while also speaking at the 2001 Productivity conference.
Foster also believes in the importance of effective recruiting, and makes sure to inject a personal element into the interview process.
He treats applicants as "customers," sending "thank you" notes to spouses, and following up with a phone call, regardless of the outcome of an interview.
According to Foster, the most reliable and cost-effective recruits are those referred by current employees. Managers should take heed of this, he said.
While recruiting is a powerful tool, the ultimate goal is always to do as little of it as possible.
Foster calculated the cost of recruiting a single driver at $6,000 per year at one operation that employs 200 drivers. With a 26% annual turnover rate, that adds up to big bucks.
This number takes into account mean advertising rates, administrative and training costs, as well as referral bonuses and recruiter fees.
"It is measurably better to retain than to recruit," he said. "It doesn't cost $6,000 a year to keep a driver."
Dignity and respect play a large role in keeping good employees on board, and a successful employer always bears this in mind.
Toohey makes a concerted effort to show workers the human face of Roundy's.
She said that birthdays and anniversaries are acknowledged, and personalized baby blankets are sent to celebrate a birth.
Additionally, complementary Gatorade is provided when it gets hot, and hot soup is sometimes available for third-shift workers, she said.
There are also more practical considerations, such as flexible shifts to accommodate family, health fairs and computer-based training for personal use at home.
"People run our warehouses, not a mouse and not an IT system," Toohey said.
Indeed, Supervalu follows the same creed, and Foster invoked the golden rule.
In regards to the truck drivers' break room, he urged attendees to ask themselves:
"Would you bring your family in here?"
If the answer is no, then do something about it, he said.
However, respect must extend beyond the "warm and fuzzy" realm of baby blankets and free pizza.
Foster advises managers to take a close look at their own internal processes when evaluating driver performance, warning against punishing the many for the actions of a few.
"Ninety-five percent of issues with driver productivity are internal to the company," he said. "It is not fair to attack an issue of 5%.
"The emphasis should be on performance review, not discipline."
It is the company's job to get drivers in and out on time by managing internal processes efficiently, providing safe, effective equipment, and doing their part to cut down on nonproductive time, he said.
"Take a look at what makes the job frustrating for the driver," he said.
To that end, Foster recommends driver advisory boards and process reviews.
In addition, Foster encourages process improvements on the bureaucratic side, creating a more user-friendly environment for the drivers.
In Foster's experience, one area of major interest for employees and employers is how to pay drivers.
Whenever possible, he strongly recommends paying by the trip rather than by the hour or by the mile.
At one 300-driver facility, Foster cut his driving force by 12% when he went to trip pay.
Drivers also reaped the benefits, earning $10,000 more per year.
Retaining workers is a complex business, yet eventually it comes down to the bottom line.
Toohey and Foster also acknowledged the necessity of competitive wages and benefits, including creative inducements such as lotteries and auctions.