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Peter BigelowThe simplest motivational measures can go a long way with tomorrow’s workers.

The past couple years have been good ones. Despite increased and costly quality protocols, foreign competition, escalating raw material costs and fewer material suppliers – and even the advent of punitive tariffs – business has been good. With fewer negative issues to contend with, the one that continues to be most talked about is the difficulty to locate, recruit, develop, and retain quality employees. Indeed, this may be the challenge of our times. As older employees approach retirement, ones who are just beginning their careers seem less interested in manufacturing as a career path than at any time we can remember.

This talent gap threatens to upturn our industry – nay, most industries – more dramatically than any new disruptive technology. Much has been said about the difficulties attracting millennials to our industry. Many initiatives have been started to educate, entice and attract younger people to companies that build technology, products and the “things” we need and use in our day-to-day lives. Some have been more successful than others, but none has been a silver bullet that works all the time in every circumstance, across all industries. While creating work environments that more resemble a summer camp than a place to produce high-quality, complex products may be the way to emulate the software-centric businesses so many millennials yearn to be part of, maybe there is a simpler approach.

Despite all the hype over employee-centric, motivational work environments at companies such as Google, before we invest in the likes of basketball courts in the plating area or coffee bars in the QC department, it might be more effective to revisit time-tested, yet often forgotten, basics of managing and supervision. For instance, saying “thank you!”

In a busy, highly competitive industry, it is easy to focus on what is not going right, especially when hiring and training a new employee. We all want the inexperienced new hire to hit the floor running, to be a plug-and-play for someone calling it quits to a long career, or to fit seamlessly and effortlessly in a swamped department in need of added capacity. The problem is it has never worked that way.

It is rare to hire someone with the precise experience from an identical environment who hits the ground running on day one. Every new employee, regardless of experience or lack of same, requires training, mentoring, direction and patience. When historically a company has added one to a few new employees every quarter – or year – the time, patience and expectations are manageable. However, when a relatively large number of experienced employees need to be replaced, and business conditions are such that everyone is overloaded, finding the individual and collective time, plus the patience to train and mentor an inexperienced person, can be trying. On top of that, much of the available talent is from a generation with a very different view on responsibility and skillsets more suited to handling quick “Wikipedia” bursts of information, rather than longer, process-driven, rote training. It’s no surprise everyone’s patience goes out the window!

Which is why it is so important to celebrate the successes, no matter how often they occur. Everyone, regardless of age or generation, appreciates a simple “thank you.” That universal message succinctly says the task, big or small, has been done well and is appreciated. Most important, it provides the much-needed encouragement that motivates workers, especially those new to a job, to repeat it, and provides confidence to try another new and daunting task.

“Thank you” it also therapeutic for the person who says it.  It focuses the speaker on the good a new employee is doing, rather than, perhaps, on how long it may be taking that worker to get up to speed. In short, it extends the patience needed for a supervisor or coworker to successfully mentor a new hire.

Saying “thank you” can be contagious. We too often forget the basics of giving thanks for a job done well, on or ahead of schedule, and performed with a positive attitude. When companies are busy, it is easy to focus on what needs to be done, rather than on what has been accomplished. A simple “thank you” can be the difference, transforming exhausting pressure into uplifting feelings of appreciation.

Will saying “thank you” make it easier to locate and hire needed talent? Maybe not. It won’t hurt, however, and may make the difference for prospective employees seeking a positive, supportive environment.

Best of all, it requires no consultants, investments in special or new training or workplace gadgetry, or changes to the day-to-day schedule. All it takes is paying attention to what every employee, new or tenured, does and celebrating their success by uttering two heartfelt words.

Giving thanks may not solve the world’s problems, or even those of our industry. It will, however, help transform an inexperienced hire into a valued team member, while reminding all employees they are central to each other’s success, as well as the success of the business, and most of all appreciated. This simple gesture has worked for generations. Even in our rapidly changing, technological world, the basics of motivation are as relevant and effective today as ever.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI Inc. (imipcb.com); pbigelow@imipcb.com. His column appears monthly.

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