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Kevin Herman of Schulze and Burch: Giving Entry-Level Talent a Second, or Sometimes First, Chance

Kevin Herman

Director of Employee Relations

Schulze and Burch

Tell us about your current role and company.

I’m Director of Employee Relations at Schulze and Burch. We’re a 98-year-old family-owned company that’s based in Chicago. We provide several hundred manufacturing jobs in the city, making a variety of baked goods such as toaster pastries, crackers, granola bars and cereal bars. You may not have heard of us; we are a co-manufacturer, which means that we produce food almost entirely for other companies, so it’s pretty rare that we have our own name on a product in a store.

Tell us about your very first job.

I was a paperboy at about age 10. My motivation for working at that age was to have my own money so that I could buy things and do what I wanted to do. It was a sense of responsibility that was given to me by my parents. They said, “If you want to buy Atari cartridges, here’s how you can do that.”

What was your first full time job?

After college I worked in residential treatment for adolescents for about three years. I found that position at a college job fair. That was a high-turnover position, so they hired a lot of people right after college. I had the type of degree they were looking for and was willing to work on the second shift in that field.

How did you get from that first job to where you are today?

Lots of very random steps. I worked in nonprofits for about twelve years, mostly in the healthcare field, and then made the jump into the worksite wellness world. I worked with a hospital network for about two years and then another ten with a brokerage and consulting firm in employee benefits and wellness.

I became more interested in HR, as wellness and human resources became more intertwined.

I got an opportunity three years ago to make the leap to HR with my favorite client, and I’ve been here ever since.

Who have been your primary mentors over your career?

I’ve had some excellent managers over the years who did just that: mentor. They would let me take on what I wanted to take on and give me guidance as I needed it. Even now I get guidance from my current leader who has been with the company for 30 years. Speaking with him about his process for decision-making, particularly in a union environment, has been incredibly valuable. Often it’s just the day-to-day observations that can be helpful for how to be successful in a working environment. It’s something I’ve tried to do myself with employees over the years.

What are the keys to your success?

Having an open mind allows you to draw on previous experiences and apply them to new situations.

Finding the link between similar scenarios can help bridge the gap before you have direct experience in a particular field or area. Advice I give to interviewees is that any life experience you can draw on, not just in the workplace, will help make an impression in an employer’s mind.

Tell me what it’s like to work at Schulze and Burch.

It’s a family environment; both the good and bad parts of a family.

If I had to use one word to describe the environment, it’s “fair.”

If you do your job well then you are taken care of. People look out for each other and all work towards the same end goals. We have an incredible well-being culture that most people participate in at some level. We have so many different events, activities and programs offered regularly and we expand that all the time.

What are the company’s current challenges?

We are an aging group. Our average age is about seven years higher than the average employer. We have a large group of folks who will be retiring soon, and the skills gap for positions like mechanics puts us in constant need for those types of employees. We have hiring challenges getting younger folks interested in working in a manufacturing environment. We have high turnover in some positions, and it’s been that way for a long time. Not as many people want to work in a manufacturing environment as in the past. This leaves us competing for talent against other industries seen as more desirable.

We have an annual event on our own track and garden area. We have two running races and two walking “races” with our corporate neighbor.

What are some examples of entry-level jobs that require no degree?

Typically our packing positions don’t have a GED requirement, and we’re happy to offer well-paying jobs to folks who will take those positions and work well in them. Some of our higher-skill positions, such as mixers and machine operators, do require more reading and basic math skills, so those require a GED or high school diploma.

What precludes an applicant from an entry-level job?

We do require drug screening and background checks. Again, we try to be fair.

We have plenty of people who have worked here for a long time who have criminal records but have paid their debt to society, and they are some of our best employees.

If something shows up in a background check, we take into account the severity and when it happened before we make a decision.

How do you source entry-level employees?

We have shifted to almost entirely temporary and staffing agencies now. Cara is great -- they provide job readiness training to candidates. We’ve also used more traditional staffing companies that don’t have these programs.

Editor's Note: Cara is a non-profit organization that has helped people affected by poverty to get and keep quality jobs.

What are some challenges associated with using agencies such as Cara?

It’s tough to find people who want to work in some of these roles, even in the current economy. We have every intention of hiring employees full-time, which the agencies like because it’s a good story for them to tell candidates. But it’s important that they be clear with their clients as to what to expect in a manufacturing environment to make sure that it’s a good fit. We have three shifts, the hours can be long and not everyone wants to work in manufacturing.

Schulze and Burch products

Are there any services you wish you could get from some of these hiring agencies?

The life skills that Cara helps with aren’t usually provided by a traditional staffing agency. That makes Cara a valuable partner. Cara teaches jobseekers life skills such as setting an alarm so that they’re on time for work, and other practices that some of us take for granted.

Another big one is financial counseling and assistance. So many people fall into credit traps and have their wages garnished. If a program could help with credit, that would help with issues such as transportation and stable housing.

These are some of the hidden financial barriers to employment that people might not recognize.

Maybe an employee has had a DUI and they no longer have a license, so they are reliant on public transportation or getting a ride from a friend. If they were able to access legal help, they may be able to get their license back, which opens up the possibility for employment.

Can you give an example of an employee from an agency that worked out well?

One person had some past issues with the law as well as some family struggles. He went into a program after serving his time, and became a highly skilled worker and successful employee. He’s a younger person and I really think that he’ll stay with us and possibly become a union steward eventually. It’s nothing revolutionary, but here’s a person who has worked hard and now has a well-paying job and great benefits and all the overtime he wants. He has a much better life than he had a few years ago. We do get a lot of people who stay here for twenty or more years. We just had two employees celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Can you give an example of an employee who did not work out and why that was?

Being a co-manufacturer means that we are very reactive to the orders and needs of our clients. That means that we have quick changes in schedules, and that can make it difficult for people who have childcare needs or just prefer a more predictable schedule.

We do our best to forecast, but there’s only so much we can do based on what our clients are ordering and what people are eating. Everything is done by committee on the management level, and a group of us are trying to implement changes to make it easier on employees. But at the end of the day, if Costco is selling out of something, then we have to add another shift. There are a lot of union rules about overtime and we stick to those, but it can still be challenging for employees from a flexibility perspective.

The reality is that some people are going to come into these entry-level jobs and they are not going to like the manufacturing environment.

Then they’re going to quit. If you look at the data less people in the US want to work in a manufacturing environment. This provides opportunity for some people where there may have not been an opportunity before.

How should Chicagoland employers address poverty in our geography?

Well I can speak to what we do as a company. We provide a lot to charity, including in-kind donations and time. But our biggest contribution to the health of the community, I feel, is that we provide well-paying manufacturing jobs in the city that we don’t even require a GED.

The single biggest thing is that we provide a good wage and excellent benefits, and we treat our employees fairly.

There are many families who have put their kids through college working at this company, and that next generation may not work here or in manufacturing, but some do.

What should be done to support employers that hire entry-level talent from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Transportation is key. I know of some agencies that will provide bus passes or provide rides to jobs, and that’s a huge help. Some go as far as helping people map out a public transportation routes and do trial runs to see how long it takes.

Again, it goes back to financial and transportation obstacles.

If there were some kind of grant or governmental agency that could help out with the financial literacy of candidates and even employees, that would make a big difference to people without decent housing or transportation. Basic job and life skill coaching is also a big help both from a hiring and retention perspective.

Why is working with entry-level talent with obstacles important to you personally?

I worked for twelve years in social services, and I saw the environments that some people are exposed to on a daily basis that many of us aren’t challenged with.

It’s important to give people a second chance, or sometimes even a first chance, to give them an opportunity to grow and help their families.

When I worked at a health department I went into people’s homes, and one of the things I learned quickly was to always bring a clipboard with me, because many families didn’t even have a table to put my forms down on. That’s not something I would have ever thought of, but it is one example of something that made a real impact on me. And many of the people I’m working with today are starting in similar circumstances.

As anyone who has worked in social services will tell you, those jobs can be draining and frustrating. So it’s nice to now be on the corporate side where we can help people get into a better situation where they can help themselves and improve life for their kids. People who are coming from difficult situations such as recovering from drug or alcohol struggles, they need a chance to start somewhere, and we’re happy to be able to provide that.

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