The recycling industry can compete for, and win, quality talent in 2022 when it offers a career path, provides, and nurtures opportunities for non-traditional job seekers, and hires top talent at all levels of the organization.

Recruiting and retaining a qualified MRF workforce is one of the operating challenges the waste and recycling industry has faced for years. Today, that challenge is magnified by the COVID pandemic and the twin realities of historically low unemployment and few job seekers.

For operators who struggle to keep productivity high and costs within budget, finding the right workforce may feel like a big problem with few solutions. While we do not have all the answers, as a high-performance work team provider specialized in the waste and recycling industry, we have fine-tuned five best practices for recruiting and retaining a MRF workforce—approaches that are especially relevant in 2022.

#1 Hire Top Talent
This may sound obvious, but in today’s tough labor market employers may be desperate to fill open positions and choose to sacrifice candidate quality for quantity. Evaluate candidates on the thoroughness of their application, whether they show up on time for the interview, and if they are prepared to talk about their experience and interest in the position. Consider investing in referral programs that encourage existing employees to refer friends and family members to the organization and reward them when their referral results in a hire. These programs can be one of the strongest ways for a MRF to find top talent and can have the added benefit of reducing turnover.

Winning the talent battle starts at the interview. Strong leaders communicate a site’s career path and promote opportunities for non-traditional job seekers. Top-notch managers recruit and retain top-notch talent at all levels of the MRF.

Work diligently to hire qualified, hardworking employees. Your hiring process should include giving entry-level candidates the opportunity to tour the MRF and to try their hand on the sort line. This “top grading” step ensures that candidates have a clear understanding of the work and the environment and increases the likelihood that new hires will stick with the job. Pair new hires with an experienced mentor—someone who can show them the ropes, answer questions and concerns, and give them a friend at work. Communicate hire referral programs to all employees and pay a significant reward that varies depending on the market. We have seen these steps pay off in improved retention and performance from day one.

#2: Provide a Career Path
Entry level jobs are just that—the starting point for a career in recycling. For new sorters, it is critical for them to know that they can move up in the plant to line leads, screen cleaners, shift managers, or administration roles. Communication about the career path starts at the job interview and is backed up by introducing sorters to teammates who have earned promotional opportunities along the way.

In our experience, sorters who demonstrate a commitment to hard work and a drive to succeed make exceptional onsite managers. One of our onsite managers is an example of a promote from within approach: he started as a sorter making $9.07 an hour. Today, his salary is in the $65k range. Examples like this give managers empathy and a true understanding of what it is like to work as a sorter. Their success is a visible and inspiring reminder to entry level associates that the promise of a career path is real and achievable.

#3: Offer Second Chance Opportunities
Offering jobs opportunities to those who have served time or might otherwise fail a traditional background check is important for both moral and practical reasons. Offering second chance employment empowers people to improve their lives and achieve self-sufficiency. It creates a sense of belonging and contributing and generates pride in one’s work. In a tight labor market, adjusting hiring standards to include those with a non-violent criminal record can make practical business sense for many employers. And, putting second chance people to work cuts down on recidivism, reduces the burden on social services, and creates wage-earning employees who contribute to the general economy.

Organizations like the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America and Goodwill all have workforce programs that aim to put people to work in jobs where they can succeed and grow. Fostering partnerships with groups like these in each community can strengthen a MRF’s recruiting efforts and the local economy.

#4: Avoid Making Assumptions
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Nobody wants to work in recycling, especially in a MRF. Sorters never stay, they move onto the next thing after a day or two. Anybody with a heartbeat can do these jobs. Our industry cannot compete with Amazon and other employers hiring general laborers today; we must take what we can get.

These are all assumptions that work against hiring and retention. Worse, they are wrong. Granted, MRF work is not for everyone, but it is the right job for a lot of people, including many we know of who have been working on the sort line for 10+ years. The work is challenging, but it is rewarding. Effective performance is not a no-brainer; it requires ongoing training and management. More importantly, success on the job requires diligent attention to safety.

Train your hiring managers to set aside their assumptions about the work and who will succeed in a MRF. Keep an open mind when recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promoting entry level employees.

#5: Invest in High-Quality Leaders
It is often said that people do not leave jobs, they leave managers. When recycling companies hire qualified, diligent managers, they in turn hire good people. High-quality managers care about their people, build relationships one-on-one and with the team as a whole, and get to know associates as individuals. They demonstrate respect and lead with dignity and humility. They create trust, camaraderie, and team spirit.

The positive traits that top-notch managers bring to the MRF pay off in reducing turnover, improving productivity, and creating an environment where people enjoy coming to work.

Win Quality Talent
The recycling industry can compete for and win quality talent in 2022 when it offers a career path, provides, and nurtures opportunities for non-traditional job seekers, and hires top talent at all levels of the organization. | WA

Since 2000, Leadpoint has provided high-performance work teams to the recycling industry, helping companies optimize their operations to improve safety, productivity, and profitability. Based in Phoenix, AZ, Leadpoint partners with more than 50 sites nationwide, driving performance improvement, workforce stability, and operating excellence through its data-driven, hands-on approach. For more information, visit