February 1, 2009
Column | labor pool

How to build a flexible workforce

Rather than laying off workers and rehiring when business picks up, some companies have concluded there's a better approach.

By Donald Jacobson and Shelley Safian

In boom times or bust, one thing doesn't change: The core of any distribution business is its people. No matter what's going on in the economy at large, you need employees who know what they're doing, know how your company runs, and know how to get the job done right and on time.

Lately, it's become clear that you also need a workforce that's flexible. When demand fluctuates, overhead typically must be adjusted to match. In the past, companies dealt with this by laying off workers when business slowed and rehiring when sales picked up. But now, many companies are concluding that a better approach is to build a flexible workforce more suited to a variable business climate. How do you do that? Here are some tips:

  • Consider hiring older workers. Study after study has shown that mature workers can be highly reliable and productive. Furthermore, semi-retired workers typically prefer part-time work to full-time employment, making them a good choice for managers seeking to build a flexible workforce. Given the rising cost of living (and the probable state of their retirement portfolios), you'll likely have no trouble finding qualified candidates.
  • Supplement your workforce with interns. Many colleges and technical schools run internship programs that allow students to get hands-on experience in the business world. Bringing in an intern might be an excellent way to fill staff vacancies at no cost to the company. Whether they're studying business administration, human resources, logistics, or sales, these students can all benefit from working on the front lines in a warehouse. This option does require greater supervision than others, but it will give you a head start in your recruitment efforts. You'll also be giving back to your community.
  • Set up cross training and job sharing programs. A great way to make your workforce more flexible is to cross train employees so you can move them wherever you have the greatest need. You might also consider sharing a staff member with another department. By putting together two part-time jobs—say, a morning shift on the loading dock with an afternoon shift in the mailroom—you can create the equivalent of a full-time job and perhaps avoid a layoff.
  • Get creative with your budget. If your warehouse staff budget gets cut and layoffs loom, check to see if there's still money in the educational benefits or training fund. If there is, offer to send some of your better workers back to school with the company's support. For them, it's a chance to continue their education; for you, it's a way to hold onto valuable people you'll need once the economy picks up.
  • Consider "lending" out staffers as teachers. Another creative way to avoid layoffs is to offer to lend out some of your employees to local colleges and schools as teachers. Technical schools are constantly searching for people with industry experience to teach courses. And colleges with business programs may be eager to bring in someone with experience in logistics or business administration.

    If you find a good match, ask the employee to cut back to part-time work, with his/her salary supplemented with an adjunct instructor's pay. (Adjunct instructors are hired on a course-by-course basis.) That way, they'll still be available when you need them back.

In unpredictable times, you need to look out for your skilled workers while ensuring your own staffing needs are met. By thinking outside the box, you can keep them close at hand while assuring a more secure future for everyone.

Don Jacobson is the president of Optimum Supply Chain Recruiters, a recruiting organization that specializes in the placement of management personnel in the logistics field on a nationwide basis. You can reach him by calling Optimum SCR at (800) 300-7609 or by visiting the firm's Web site, www.OptimumSCR.com.

More articles by Donald Jacobson

Shelley Safian is vice president of marketing for Optimum Supply Chain Recruiters, a recruiting organization that specializes in the placement of management personnel in the logistics field on a nationwide basis. You can reach her by calling Optimum SCR at (800) 300-7609 or by visiting the firm's Web site, www.OptimumSCR.com.
More articles by Shelley Safian

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