Automation Makes a Difference

By Tana Grange Feb 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, February 2008 Speeding up pre-employment steps eases relations with line managers and makes the manufacturing process smoother.

Day after day, employees at Wilcox Farms tend the lines in our fluid-milk and egg packaging plants, producing a range of dairy and egg products for retail customers in the Northwest. Managers on this 1,800-acre farm in rural Roy, Wash., near Tacoma, experience high turnover mainly attributable to 24-hour, seven-day operation. Because of this, we process about 1,000 job applications a year and hire about 10 workers a month. One of the largest employers in Southeast Pierce County, we compete with our own customers to staff the 200-employee dairy and 150- employee egg divisions.

Our pay starts at $9.55 to $10.70 an hour for workers with experience on manufacturing lines, in food warehouses, in agriculture, or with equipment such as pallet jacks and forklifts. Our workers range from 18 to 55 years old, with an average age of 33.

When I came on board as the dairy's human resource professional in July 2006, the employment process was scattered, with each hire taking up to two weeks. It was difficult to keep the applicants straight and remember where each was in the process. Applicants and line managers alike shot me a constant barrage of phone calls, emails and unexpected visits, disrupting my routine and making it difficult to accomplish much.

Speeding up hiring became a priority, as it represents only 10 percent to 15 percent of my job. Other responsibilities include employee relations, investigations, self-insured workers' compensation and self-insured benefits programs, and leave programs. I need all the help I can get.

The first improvement came by setting a schedule for weekly group interviews in which managers meet with several applicants at a time for about 20 to 30 minutes. From these candidates, managers identify whom they want to prescreen. Nevertheless, we still needed to reduce turnaround time.

The second improvement came after I shopped for a vendor of highspeed pre-screening employment software and services. I studied packages proposed by Intelius, USA Backgrounds Inc. and Precise Hire, ultimately selecting Intelius. The company charges an average of $35 per candidate.

Now, when a manager likes a candidate, I can immediately type the prospect's name, Social Security number and date of birth online to verify Social Security numbers and check addresses. It takes roughly 10 to 15 minutes to determine whether the candidate has a criminal record in the United States.

That speed ultimately cuts in half the time to get a qualified candidate from interview to the production floor. This is important: With our schedules and turnover, the company does not have time to wait. Initial screening gives a prelude to what we can expect from the rest of the background check. As the next step, I check candidates' references via phone calls and let line managers know whether it's OK to hire them.

For the roughly 30 percent of applicants whose screenings show criminal records, it may take an additional 24 to 48 hours for the service provider to send representatives and obtain countyrecords of charges. Meanwhile, at least I can let line managers know of pending records and approximately when the screenings will be done.

Our company has the potential to automate more of the employment process and use more resources for screening applicants. For example, we may start to search for driver's license numbers or run credit checks on applicants for positions in the finance department. In the future, we'll also consider accepting Internet applications.

Meanwhile, having the background checks completed in short order saves me about two or three hours a week, with most time savings achieved from not having to deal with impatient line managers and concerned applicants. Paperwork flows more smoothly throughout the company. Plus, I know we present a more positive, business-like image to applicants when they come through the door.

Tana Grange is HR generalist with Wilcox Farms, a dairy bottler and egg producer in Roy, Wash.

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