Character skills carry on through work

BY JENNIFER BAILEY

DANVILLE — When children enter kindergarten, most parents aren’t thinking about what job their son or daughter will hold outside of high school and college.

Local employers said parents should focus on character skills early on that will follow the children through school and into the work force.

These skills include good manners, good communication, responsibility and reliability, motivation and having initiative and pursuing new skills.

Willingness to learn

Mervis Industries Vice President of Human Resources Candice Underhill says there are certain skills she looks for in potential employees.

She says “you can train almost everyone if they have a willingness to learn.”

That’s a key to success in the business world, Underhill says, which can be instilled early on in life before and after children start attending school.

That’s why Underhill says the United Way’s Success by Six program, in addition to other community efforts, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Club, are so important to families to keep children in school and away from negative influences.

“What I see (in potential hires) goes back to their early years …,” she said.

In potential employees, Underhill looks for a willingness to learn new skills and problem solving; the ability to communicate — to listen, read, write and speak; and dedication, reliability and responsibility.

At Mervis’ Illini Castings, employees are tested on parts rebuilds.

“Everything is done to very precise standards,” Underhill said.

She said a love to learn is either a part of a person or not.

“Having raised two boys, that love of learning is learned real early,” Underhill said.

Some people don’t care about learning new skills, or may not have the ability. How a person was raised, or even a particular teacher, can have a lifelong effect.

Mervis now is hiring welders, drivers and tow-truck drivers.

“The people we have working for us are absolutely outstanding,” Underhill said. “We probably have the best team we have had.

“I just wish we could find more of them,” she added. “We’re always looking to expand. I have never stopped taking applications.”

The company uses temporary worker agencies to test people.

Mervis Industries is a family-owned and family-operated business. Services include recycling metal; rail car scrapping; plastic, paper and electronic scrap; and plastic grinding and palletizing.

“The scrap business is a fascinating business,” Underhill said.

Mervis has almost 400 employees in Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Mexico. There were a few layoffs in 2008. The layoffs lasted five to six months, Underhill said.

Employees must have a high school diploma to work at Mervis, or a General Educational Development test or be working toward a GED.

Additional skills, such as a commercial driver’s license, heavy equipment training or welding experience through Danville Area Community College, mean a better job.

“We do a lot of training,” Underhill said.

The business also has a tuition assistance program to help employees earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

“It all comes back to willingness …,” Underhill said.

Underhill said everything employees do also is based on communication — such as in getting a job done and following safety rules. A person can’t get by just operating big equipment or torching or welding, she said, adding that employees must communicate well between each other.

Underhill, who’s been with Mervis for almost 21 years, said an employee arriving to work daily, on time and who is ready to work and be responsible for his or her actions also goes back to lessons learned since kindergarten and beforehand.

If a child learns how it feels to be excited and interested in doing something, such as going to school, this can continue later throughout school and a career.

“I hope in the Success by Six program, it instills in children a love to learn and a love of going to school …,” Underhill said.

The basics of communicating, responsibility and other business skills, such as problem solving, need to be taught early on, she said.

Underhill also suggests everyone should work in a food service and retail job to see how hard it is. Someone who’s worked those jobs also can be a better customer.

Retail experience

County Market can fill the role Underhill spoke about, as it serves as a first job for many local high school students.

County Market North Manager Matt Smith said they hire a lot of high school students and Danville Area Community College students who work part-time.

Some students are more motivated and reliable if they are involved in other school activities because they must adhere to a busy schedule, Smith said. If someone has customer service or retail or fast food experience dealing with people, that is a plus.

“People skills are harder to train,” Smith said. “You have to know how to respond to people and understand how to talk to people.”

He said that may seem fairly basic, but manners, being friendly and a smile go a long way.

“The biggest thing we look for is attitude,” Smith said. “You can tell fairly quickly whether a kid is looking for a job because (he or she) wants a job, or a father and mother are telling (their child) to get a job.”

Smith said body language can be very telling.

“We can teach them the necessary skills for the job,” Smith said, such as using a cash register.

During the hiring process, a pleasant attitude and social skills also are considered.

Most entry-level positions are cashiers or grocery stock or cart persons. Being a “cart boy” is a testing ground if they can handle the job in all kinds of weather, Smith said.

Different culture

Danville Metal Stamping Human Resources Manager Chris Dunn doesn’t think the lack of technical and/or people skills will ever go away with job candidates.

“We have seen that employees who just have a willingness and are motivated to learn, will generally succeed,” Dunn said.

Danville Metal Stamping produces a variety of metal components for the aerospace and gas turbine industries. Dunn said if someone is suited for this type of work, good communication skills are key.

A high school diploma or GED isn’t required, but obviously a more well-rounded education would benefit the company, he said.

“We have older employees and young employees who are very, very good and talented,” Dunn said of the approximately 400 local employees.

He said a survey of the current work force’s educational level and how they performed showed company officials at least one employee who didn’t graduate high school, but came on as a temporary employee and was hired full-time. Dunn said the company could not justify terminating this person who is able to perform all duties, but didn’t graduate.

Company officials realized some people leave school for various reasons, such as someone who isn’t fit for formal education and learning in a conventional way. Some people can’t learn through reading, but can through hands-on experience, Dunn said.

“Kids may have minor leaning disabilities in the conventional school system, but are mechanically very talented,” Dunn said.

Another skill some positions utilize is geometry. Dunn said some schools don’t even teach it. Danville Metal Stamping can do the training.

Dunn has seen more turnover trends in recent years and “it seems that employees today are not quite as loyal to the company. There is not the resistance to the call or recruitment of other employers.”

The need to fill positions has increased lately because of turnover. Dunn said employees today leave for more money or other reasons.

Dunn added “the basic intelligence and talent to perform the work that Danville Metal Stamping performs is present in a majority of the population.

“Personal skills are also very important and to be able to have good working relations with co-workers,” he added.

“That’s a skill that really needs to be developed when you are younger. It’s difficult as an employer to retrain,” Dunn said. “One must speak good English and communicate well.”

For an entry-level position, if someone doesn’t have manufacturing experience or aerospace manufacturing experience, there still are skill sets an employee can bring. Most production positions go from temporary to full-time hire.

Hands-on experience

AnnMarie Cross, recruiting and training coordinator, and Randy Berg, vice president of human resources with Watchfire Signs say they want to bring in the best talent they can when looking to add employees to about 200 already working locally.

These employees can fill basic, entry-level positions and work their way up to directors. Factory and production work involves welding and other skills.

Cross said they prefer an employee with a high school diploma. The business encourages students to finish high school or receive their GED. Engineer positions require more sophisticated degrees.

Temp agencies weed out those who don’t have math, decimal, fraction and other skills such as using a ruler.

Cross has been surprised that some potential employees don’t know how to use basic tools, such as a drill.

“They’re academically sound,” she added.

Cross and Berg see character issues as being extremely important, such a positive attitude to work and accepting guidance and criticism.

They say solutions to solve lacking skills are: to get any work experience early on and exposure to work skills through school.

This can be through taking field trips to local businesses to see how they work and learning to use basic tools at school or home.

“We struggle to fill all positions,” Cross said, adding that they move people here to fill spots.

“DACC has a great program … but not high volume,” she added about local technical classes.

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