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You would be hard-pressed to find business operations with less in common than a plywood assembly facility, a plant for making sweet potato fries and a manufacturer of control pumps. Yet these wildly divergent businesses attribute their success to one common source—the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) FastStartprogram.
FastStart provides customized employee recruitment, screening, training development and training delivery for eligible, new or expanding companies’ immediate and long-term workforce needs—all at no cost, according to the LED website.
“I really believe that the expansion of our plywood manufacturing operation would have never gone so smoothly without the help of LED FastStart,” said Connie Baker, PHR, director for human resources at RoyOMartin Plywood in Chopin, La.
With the help of LED FastStart, RoyOMartin added 200 new workers to its existing workforce of 500. Baker says the challenge to get the expansion completed and on budget was daunting, but FastStart eased the process by helping screen and identify the kind of workers her organization needed.
Growth, Importance of State-Run Economic Programs
Relocating or starting up an office or business operation is always costly and sometimes risky. To lower that risk, employers must have workers in place, become productive as soon as possible and realize a rapid return on investment—in other words, new business operations need a fast start to ensure success.
The immense pressure on businesses for fast returns and immediate productivity from relocation and startup projects has made state-run economic and workforce development programs indispensable. A state’s reputation or program for providing top-notch economic incentives and workforce support services often can be the deciding factor as to where businesses choose to relocate or launch startups.
Some workforce development programs tend to stand out more than others, with states like Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, New Mexico and North Carolina receiving praise for their efforts. Among those, LED FastStart has been building a reputation as possibly the best in the United States. In August 2012 and for the third year in a row, Business Facilities magazine ranked the program the best state-operated workforce development initiative. The accolades have been well-earned, according to businesses and HR professionals who have worked with LED FastStart.
“The program worked so well for us, because they did their homework and made a concerted effort to understand our business,” said Don Downard, HR director for ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston Inc. in Kennewick, Wash.
Downard worked with FastStart when his employer decided to open a plant that produced sweet potato fries in Delhi, La. He told SHRM Online he wasn’t familiar with the FastStart program when the project started, but he quickly learned to depend on the expertise of the program’s staff.
“We have started up plants like this before, so we knew what to expect and what we needed to do,” Downard said. “FastStart really helped us focus on what needed to be done, and I know the process went a lot quicker because they were involved.”
The plant startup was initially set to hire 250 workers. According to Downard, approximately 1,800 applications were submitted for the 250 openings. FastStart helped by developing a screening process that identified the best candidates.
“It really helped us concentrate on the type of workers and skills we needed without being overwhelmed by an avalanche of job applications,” Downard said.
Focus on Customer Satisfaction
The level of service that Downard’s and Baker’s employers received is something that the staff of FastStart takes pride in and strives for with each employer, according to Jeff Lynn, executive director of LED FastStart.
“We tailor our services and support to fit each employer’s needs,” Lynn said. “It’s no cookie-cutter approach where we pull something off the shelf and use it the same way. The businesses that we work with are very different, and all have a different set of needs and skill sets for their workforces.”
It was the dedication and attention to detail that won over Joy Schneider, HR supervisor for Gardner Denver Thomas Inc. Schneider worked with FastStart when her company opened a new plant in Monroe, La., to manufacture air compressor pumps.
“Before I worked on this project, I didn’t have much experience working with a state workforce development program like this,” Schneider told SHRM Online. “So I didn’t know what to expect. The experience has been great; FastStart has been there every step of the way with us, and the staff really understands our business and what our staffing needs are.”
The FastStart staff developed a series of training checklists and training guides for Gardner Denver’s new hires. They also helped the company to create and operate a new-employee orientation program.
“Their attention to detail and understanding how our business operated was just phenomenal,” Schneider said.
FastStart’s services and involvement don’t end once a new facility or business expansion is up and running. The program’s staff works closely with Louisiana’s four-year and two-year colleges to keep curriculum up-to-date and develop training courses for the job skills employers need. According to Lynn, the program is working to push the training and development curriculum down to the high school level, so that high school graduates either continue their education or possess job skills that employers in Louisiana need.
“This effort is ongoing, and we’re beginning to see some excellent results,” Lynn said.
Since 2008 when LED FastStart was launched, Louisiana has secured dozens of economic development projects and business startups that have created more than 51,500 jobs directly and indirectly. Businesses have invested more than $12.6 billion in the state since 2006, which in turn has generated several hundred million dollars in new sales for the state’s small-business community.
The success of FastStart has attracted attention from other states, and Lynn said he receives calls nearly every week from states looking to learn more about FastStart’s success secrets. Lynn is happy to help, but only up to a point. He said other states are competitors, so he and his staff are always careful not to give too much away.
“In a lot of ways, though, our success comes from just good common sense practices,” he said. “If you’re committed to providing the best customer service possible and able to deliver on that promise, then you will be successful in whatever you do.”
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.
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