By Megan Quinn
The tight labor market makes hiring and retaining employees more challenging than ever. Learn the creative strategies recyclers are using today to win and keep their new hires.
June is the start of the busy season at Brenner Recycling, an 18-employee scrapyard in Hazleton, Pa. The company is doing good business, but employees are hustling a little harder than usual to get everything done. Brenner has advertised four open positions for drivers and entry-level laborers, “but we just can’t get workers hired,” says Jason Brenner, the company’s vice president.
Recyclers say hiring and retention problems are eating into their productivity and causing training and staffing headaches across the yard. This summer seems particularly challenging because of the tight labor market: In May 2019, unemployment in the United States was down to 3.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even when the labor market isn’t so competitive, the industry faces additional challenges that make hiring tricky. Scrap companies across all commodity streams often need workers who can do physically demanding jobs in environments where dirt, dust, and grease are prevalent, which can be a tough sell for employees who might find those conditions unpleasant. For the segment of the labor pool that does not mind those conditions, recyclers also compete with industries such as construction and oil and gas, which may offer competitive salaries or hours. And workers today also have the option of gig economy jobs like ridesharing, which allow them to make their own hours. “It’s tough out there for pretty much every recycler. We’re all fighting the same battle: Finding people who can work,” says Arthur Weinstein, president of Allied Salvage & Metals (Richmond, Canada).
Recyclers across North America are responding with creativity and a determination to make the recycling industry and their companies more attractive to candidates and employees.
Sizing Up the Competition
Understanding the recycling industry’s direct labor force competitors can help you more effectively compete for good employees. One major competitor is the construction industry, which added 215,000 jobs over the past 12 months in the United States, according to BLS. Construction positions share some of the same working conditions as scrapyards, but the construction industry may offer hourly wages that are higher than typical starting wages at a scrapyard, says Brian Henesey, general manager of Rocky Mountain Recycling, who has six open positions at his 90-person scrapyard in Commerce City, Colo. He sees evidence of neighboring businesses’ hiring methods during his commute to work each day: An insulation company just down the road from his scrapyard hangs a banner-sized advertisement on its fence to publicize its signing bonuses.
Some recyclers fight the competition by offering comparable wages, if possible. Allied Salvage & Metals offers a starting wage of CA$18 instead of Vancouver’s CA$15 minimum wage—a move Weinstein says is critical to attract employees who already struggle to live in a city with a high cost of living. Also, Allied pays weekly instead of every two weeks, he says.
If recyclers can’t compete in wages, they can offer some things Tom Crane of Rocky Mountain Recycling argues have even more value: stability and good benefits. “Construction might pay more up front, but workers are only employed eight or nine months out of the year,” he said during a workforce panel discussion in April at ISRI2019 in Los Angeles. In addition, he said, “We show [prospective employees] the big picture: the better health insurance, the 401(k) [retirement plan]. That adds up in the long term.”
Jacqueline Lotzkar, a trading manager at Pacific Metals Recycling (Vancouver, British Columbia) says construction, technology, and film industry employers are major competitors in her area of British Columbia. “Those jobs pay well, but they are seasonal,” she said during the panel discussion. “Our guys [at Pacific] are unionized, and a lot of them make $25 an hour with full benefits.” She also noted, however, that “our guys stay long term because they recognize the stability.”
The gig economy—jobs where workers make their own hours, such as by working for rideshare or delivery companies like Uber or Postmates—is another big competitor that has attracted some employees who want flexible hours away from scrapyard work, Brenner says. Someone who is qualified to work in a scrapyard “might say to themselves, ‘I could get dirty all day, or I could be a taxi driver driving my own car,’ so they choose Uber over us,” he says. He fears the allure of the gig economy will get stronger as younger generations enter the workforce.
Schnitzer Steel Industries (Portland, Ore.) has the same concern: The company employs over 3,500 people across its 45 metal recycling facilities, 51 pick-and-pull stores, and one steel mill. Its job board listed 271 vacancies in June. Many of the open positions at its pick-and-pull stores have typically gone to younger people, such as students just out of high school or college, says Stef Murray, the company’s chief diversity officer and vice president of human resources. “Lately, younger workers seem to want job opportunities with flexible schedules,” which a scrapyard cannot always provide, she says.
To combat the negative image—or the lack of knowledge—potential hires have about the scrap industry, Schnitzer and other companies are highlighting the environmental benefits their work creates. “One of our taglines is, ‘We were green before green was cool,’” Murray says. “Younger generations want to work somewhere with a higher purpose. We’re helping the environment—that appeals to them.”
Lotzkar agrees that younger generations have different priorities than in years past. Millennials and Generation Z employees need to feel that their work contributes to “the bigger picture,” such as the environment or the community. “That’s why people will join a company. They want to be part of a bigger community,” she says.
Scrapyards also are showing how their employees take pride in their work. Allied Salvage & Metals posts videos on its Facebook page that show workers scrapping large boats and working as a team to move heavy items off a flatbed truck. One titled “Watch the Cranes Dance!” is a time-lapse video of material handlers moving scrap with an added music soundtrack. The videos give the public—and potential employees—a taste of what a day in the scrapyard might be like, Weinstein says. “We’re used to hiring people with zero knowledge of a scrapyard or the industry,” he says. “You almost have to train people on what the industry is about.”
Getting the Word Out
In such competitive times, conventional ways of advertising jobs, such as job listing websites or social media posts, don’t deliver the same bang for your buck as they did a few years ago, Brenner says. With so many jobs for potential employees to choose from, “everyone who really wants to work is probably already working,” he says. The scrapyard has come up with one creative way to attack the problem: It asks customers to apply. Customers who sell scrap already know a little about the business and what it might entail, he says, and some have already built long-term relationships with the scrapyard. Brenner Recycling is using this strategy to find potential employees for its hardest-to-fill position: truck driver. The search for drivers has gotten so dire that when customers present their ID to get paid for their scrap, “if we see they have a [commercial driver’s license], we’ll ask them if they are interested in applying,” Brenner says.
Schnitzer is trying the same strategy, Murray says. “Our customer is our perfect employee,” she says. “They don’t mind the outdoors, and they already understand a little about the industry.” Schnitzer does a targeted hiring push during busy holidays, such as Memorial Day, which results in more traffic to its pick-and-pull stores. As customers enter the yard, workers pass out flyers and cards that advertise open positions and invite them to attend a Schnitzer job fair, she says.
Some companies have found employee referrals are an effective method for attracting new hires. Employees who have positive experiences at work can help drum up interest in open positions, says Brad Baker, chief human resources officer for Sims Metal Management (Rye, New York). “Often, our best resource is our own employees, who share their love of Sims with friends and family,” he says. Rocky Mountain Recycling has found similar success with employee referrals, which can also strengthen retention, Henesey says. However, for the process to work, scrapyards must already have a positive and inclusive work environment, he adds. “We want people who are motivated to work here, so we need to share what we do: our history, our values, and our mission. Our employees need to feel welcome.”
Recyclers are also thinking more broadly about recruitment outreach strategies to different groups of potential workers, with some actively recruiting military veterans and those who were formerly incarcerated. In the past, Brenner Recycling has worked with a recruiting company that focused solely on finding jobs for veterans, “which is something we might use again because veterans are really an untapped resource,” Brenner says. The scrapyard has also hired employees who were on work release from prison.
Texas Recycling (Dallas) and Queen City Metal Recycling & Salvage (Charlotte, N.C.) are other scrapyards that offer temporary and permanent jobs to people on parole for felony convictions or on work release. These employees, sometimes barred from taking other types of jobs, are willing to work and ready to learn new skills, said Michelle Coffino, Queen City’s owner, in a 2017 interview with Scrap. “When you give [formerly incarcerated people] the opportunity to learn a new trade, you become an active community partner,” she said. “We have to give individuals a new way of life. That’s been my mantra.” (For more on hiring and employing people with felony records, see “Setting the Record Straight” in the November/December 2017 issue of Scrap.)
The Society for Human Resource Management (Alexandria, Va.) encourages businesses to include people with felony convictions in the hiring process. SHRM recently launched the Getting Talent Back to Work initiative, which asks employers to make a pledge to “give opportunities to qualified people with a criminal record, deserving of a second chance.” It offers a toolkit with resources to help you with compliance information, interview pointers, incentives, and communication strategies for new hires.
Take a look at your hiring processes to identify other barriers that might be keeping qualified people from working in your yard. For example, Schnitzer used to require new hires to pass a physical before their first day of work, but the testing process took so long that “employees often accepted other jobs while waiting to schedule their physicals,” Murray says. Schnitzer still requires a physical, but it has since adjusted its policy to hire on a contingent basis. “That has made a huge difference,” she says.
Investing in the Future
Once you hire the right people, you’ll have to do more than just offer a paycheck to keep them around—you have to show you are willing to invest in them as employees and create space for them on the team, Murray says.
Schnitzer recently created a formal onboarding program to address turnover especially for employees leaving after less than 90 days. “The feedback was that new employees didn’t feel like they were getting the support they needed,” Murray says. The 90-day program assigns each new hire a safety mentor. It also recognizes the employees on their 90th day of work by trading in their red hard hats for yellow ones. The company introduced an employee recognition program to recognize good deeds and anniversaries as well as a series of regular town hall meetings where any employees, regardless of how long they have worked for the company or what their positions are, can give suggestions and ask questions. The company’s CEO, Tamara Lundgren, hosts an additional “town call” conference call every two months, in which she gives a report about the company and asks for feedback from anyone who is interested in joining the call. “Employees have definitely taken her up on it,” Murray says.
Rocky Mountain Recycling also recently revamped its onboarding process, which helps new hires feel they’re part of a larger team, Henesey says. “It used to be that you would get hired, go through a safety orientation, and get to work. Now, we go into greater detail. We share more about the company and our values, and we follow up with [new hires] more often,” he says.
Weinstein of Allied Salvage & Metals says his company’s strategy for retaining employees is to offer increased incentives the longer an employee stays on the job. After three months, employees get a raise and are eligible for health and dental benefits. After a year, employees can take part in a retirement savings plan, a type of Canadian pension plan into which Allied contributes matching funds. These benefits can get expensive, but Weinstein says it has made a major difference in retention rates. “Of the 40-odd people who work for us, 30 of them are long-term employees,” he says. When employees work together for so long, they begin to think of each other as family. “You spend a lot of time together, and you get to know your employees and their families. We need to look after them. And if they are there every day, making a good effort, they are making the company money and we can all share in that revenue,” he says.
Allied also pairs all new employees with mentors who show them the ropes, teach them how to correctly do tasks like sorting and weighing, and make sure they get the required safety and operations training they need. This offers new employees much-needed guidance, especially since the majority of new hires have never worked in a scrapyard before—“but it makes all of us work a little more slowly,” he says. Once new hires are independent enough to work on their own, productivity increases, he says.
Mentoring is also an important facet of Sims Recycling Solutions (West Chicago, Ill.), Sims’ e-scrap division, Baker says. Its Rising Star program pairs an employee with “an experienced colleague who assists in their development by sharing resources, expertise, values, skills, knowledge, advice, and support,” he says. The mentor and mentee agree on goals, schedule meetings, and complete a formal evaluation at the end of the program.
Murray, Brenner, Baker, and Weinstein all agree that employees need to see there’s room to grow. Offering training programs and promoting from within the company are two such strategies. At Allied, “everyone starts at the bottom, so we can take [new employees] around the scrapyard and point out the person who worked his way up to be a skid-steer operator, or he’s in charge of the baler. If you like working here, you are going to move up,” Weinstein says.
One more barrier to recruitment is the fact that recycling isn’t as well-known an industry as the likes of, say, construction or auto repair. In the future, Brenner would like to leverage community resources, such as trade schools, high schools, and scholarship organizations, to connect people with jobs in recycling—and do it earlier in workers’ careers. “We could use welders, mechanics, you name it. We have a bunch of skilled labor positions, but we lack resources to help people who are interested in those career fields connect with us as the recycling industry,” he says.
Some companies already have such partnerships, including one Pennsylvania recycler that works with a university job placement program to hire new employees. Another, Sadoff Iron & Metal Co. (Fond du Lac, Wis.), occasionally offers apprenticeships for high schoolers. One of Sadoff’s mechanics, Aaron Radl, apprenticed with the company as a teen before Sadoff hired him full-time a few years later. Earlier this year he won ISRI’s Golden Wrench award, which recognizes outstanding vehicle maintenance service. Campus partnerships and apprenticeships could be in the works at Sims Metal Management, Baker says. The company is evaluating how to integrate these types of programs at the regional and national level.
Lotzkar hopes the more connections recyclers make with their communities, the more successful they will be at finding and retaining employees. Whether it’s reaching out to job placement organizations, veteran recruitment programs, schools, or customers themselves, many recyclers share a common goal: Make the recycling industry more familiar to job seekers, then snag employees who will stick around long term, she says. “The [recycling] industry can promote better awareness of what we do and develop a community around it.”
Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.