April 23, 2019

By MARY ARNTSON-TERRELL

For the past two years the U.S. Unemployment rate has been hovering at the lowest it’s been in nearly half a century. Couple this with being a big employer in a small town and hiring can be tough. Especially in a facility as big as the 1.5 million sq. ft. Dot Foods distribution warehouse in Mount Sterling, Illinois. According to Suzy Parn, Director of Personnel for Dot’s Illinois warehouse, filling more than 2,600 front office, warehouse and transportation jobs in a city of less than 2,000 people is difficult. “Let’s face it, Brown County only has 6,000 inhabitants, we are not in a population dense area of the country. We do not have a large pool of potential workers.” 

In order to compete for employees during a labor shortage, employers are getting creative and thinking outside the box. To set themselves apart, Dot warehouse has established flexible work schedules such as four 10-hour days or three 12-hour days. They also offer career growth programs and a comprehensive benefits package. Finally, several Dot locations contain Family Health Centers, which consist of on-site clinics, to provide employees and their families with professional, affordable medical care at convenient hours. The Mount Sterling health facility, Dot’s biggest one yet, will open in early 2020.
 
Despite these efforts, Dot was still grappling with a labor shortage.  A few years ago Dot looked deeper into the surrounding community. “Near Mount Sterling we have some Hispanic communities and French speaking African communities. We realized we needed to develop ways to reach out to these groups to increase awareness about Dot and then follow up with extra support post hiring for these groups,” explains Parn. The same was true with women and veterans—two more pools of potential employees Dot was eager to tap into more.
 
DiversityChart_300.pngA Warehouse Diversity Oversight Group was soon developed and it was time to brainstorm. One item that repeatedly came up as a barrier for potential employees was the physical aspect of the warehouse jobs. Parn said that there were many job seekers that met the requirements for the job, but could not pass the physical agility test. “That’s when we created the light pick zone in the dry warehouse where the max case weight is 35 pounds instead of 65 pounds,” explains Parn. “The program has been so effective, we expanded it to the freezer, too.” The result has been an efficient pathway for job seekers who need to lift a lighter load.
 
FemaleLeadershipChart_300.pngNext Dot focused on those nearby Spanish and French speaking communities they had identified as potential labor pools. Parn says that initially Dot ran recruitment ads in Spanish and French and held job fairs in areas where those populations are focused. “We quickly hired bilingual support (especially warehouse trainers) who were excellent recruiters within their communities. Once we began hiring and training people in their native languages, word traveled fast within their communities.” These efforts have helped Dot hire enough employees to keep up with the demands of their business and companywide diversity has increased over the past few years.
 
Research shows it’s not enough to just hire more bodies to fill more positions. In order to keep ahead of the crippling effects of a labor shortage, a company has to retain those employees they have invested resources into recruiting and training.  Dot has found success on this front by creating Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These groups are great partners for identifying gaps in an organization. Dot has found that ERGs are a business asset and demonstrate their value by helping with recruitment and retention, marketing, brand enhancement, training, and employee development. They are instrumental with helping new Dot employees get comfortable and up to speed. Dot has created groups for women leaders, young professionals, veterans, and multicultural employees.

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Members of Women of the Warehouse present a check to Brown County Against Cancer. The group sold T-shirts as a fundraiser.

One of the most popular and active programs is the Women of the Warehouse group – affectionately called WOW.  But don’t let the name fool you, the planning committee is intentionally one-third male and the programs are open for all employees. The WOW group holds several events per year. They organize support for local charities, provide feedback to leadership and offer valuable support and development opportunities to warehouse staff.

One of the most important functions of the group happens on a day-to-day basis. The members are encouraged to go out of their way to speak to new employees and check back often with them to see what questions they have about Dot and their job—and then WOW members are encouraged to follow up to help find answers.
 
Jessica Lopez is the current chair of WOW. She has been employed with Dot Foods since 2003 and is a lead in the warehouse. She says, “When I started in the warehouse almost 15 years ago it was predominately male. I was one of the few females on the floor so I didn’t have support from other females. I’m looking forward to working to give support to more females as well as anyone else.”
 

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Members of Women of the Warehouse held a Health & Hiring Expo with the local healthcare system. They offered information on Dot, a light pick zone experience, health screenings and activities for children.

Along the same vein, Michael Kackley, a warehouse trainer and one of the first men to join WOW, says he “felt that showing my support as a WOW member would make me more approachable to the women on my shift as well as give me better insight on how to coach them and set them up for success.”

These warehouse leaders’ instincts are right on track according to a book by Juliet Bourke, “Which two heads are better than one? How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions.” The book explains that in order to have success, companies need to prioritize an inclusive culture in addition to hiring a diverse workforce. Those companies that do, the author says, are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, six times more likely to be innovative and agile and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes. 

Misty DeVore is relatively new to Dot. She was still in training when her supervisor invited her to a WOW meeting. “At the time I didn’t really realize that I did, in fact, need something from the group. I needed a place where I felt I belonged and fit in,” she recalls. She says that the group has been helpful because through the group she has met and interacted with people she never would have otherwise during the course of her normal work week.
 

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The Women of the Warehouse haunted house is popular at the annual Dot Family Fun Fair.

Last year WOW held a development event that was geared towards enhancing communication skills among workers in the warehouse and providing feedback to Dot leadership. WOW members were assigned to teams and each team created a 10 minute professional presentation that answered the question, how can Dot improve inclusion and retention of women and minorities?  “The presentations to warehouse senior managers were well done and resulted in positive change such as our new hire buddy program and also our schedule flexibility options,” says Parn. “One of the most interesting things we found during these presentations was that most of these ideas had little to no direct costs associated to them.”


Programs such as Women of the Warehouse help companies decrease the effects of two expensive problems the foodservice industry faces today – the labor shortage and employee turnover. According to a Forbes.com article “Embracing Diversity and Fostering Inclusion Is Good for Your Business” there are very clear steps that need to happen to create a successful and diverse team. They are:

  • Top-level buy-in
  • Mentoring
  • A reworking of company policies
  • Switching up recruitment avenues and tactics.

Is there anything Dot can do to improve their diversity support? Not likely, says Tresor Manikuna a warehouse employee and WOW member who emigrated from Congo and whose native language is French. “I’m not seeing anything for now because we have good support that allows us to feel more included and helpful. We have training materials in three languages, translators, bilingual leadership, cultural appreciation events and WOW.” The WOW program, he says, shows that Dot is actively trying to resolve their labor problem in a way that works for the company and the employees. “It shows clearly that Dot cares about their community and creating equal leadership opportunities.”
 
 

Citations

Atcheson, S. (2018, September 28). Embracing Diversity And Fostering Inclusion Is Good For Your Business. Forbes.com

Bourke, J. (2016). Which two heads are better than one?: How diverse teams create breakthrough ideas and make smarter decisions. Sydney, N.S.W.: Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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