Mike Huycke


What are some of the factors that are currently affecting staffing issues and did they change throughout 2023?
In 2023, we observed a stabilization of wages and increased workforce stability. Amid the pandemic, wage rates increased substantially across various labor markets. Many businesses experienced labor pressures that required investments in wages and other cost factors to recruit and retain employees. However, throughout 2023, the labor market has seen a softening trend in wage escalation.
Companies successfully adapting to the rising wage landscape have experienced a notable reduction in turnover and improved workforce stability. This positive trend has been evident within our own company. Our fill rate is at an all-time high at 97 percent. Improved fill rates have contributed to improved employee retention, which naturally translates into enhanced productivity, safety, and reliability.

How did M&A activity in 2023 affect staffing issues?
Any time a facility undergoes a change in ownership, there is a significant impact on the workforce that requires careful consideration and management. M&A activities often lead to changes in operations, leadership, work schedules, equipment, or system retrofits, shift changes, etc., each of which present workforce management challenges. In our case, M&A activity presents an opportunity, as we possess proven capabilities in recruiting, training, and onboarding, and facilitating seamless transitions in changing workforce environments.

Prioritizing the employee’s experience is critical. Leadership should ask themselves, “How can we ensure a positive experience for the workforce throughout the transaction?” HR leaders and operational managers responsible for personnel must remain attuned to employee perspectives and overall morale. Effective communication and education are key. M&A transactions can have repercussions for staffing, potentially leading to unintended employee turnover if not managed effectively. Management plays a vital role in helping employees feel secure and comfortable amid change.

What workforce trends do you predict for recycling in 2024?
As highlighted earlier, one trend involves the stabilization of post-pandemic wage increases, with a return to more modest 2 to 3 percent cost-of-living adjustments. Additionally, we expect sustained demand for technical positions due to the ongoing advancement of automation in MRFs and other recycling operations.

The rise in automation also implies a reduction in the need for human sorters. It is crucial for those employed in MRFs, PRFs, or polymer operations to be well-versed in sorting techniques and material contamination thresholds. Heightened and continued investments in PRFs and polymer facilities continue to advance the circularity of plastics and sites maintain low contamination thresholds, emphasizing the importance of sophisticated automation and having a well-trained and managed workforce.

What were the creative ways organizations dealt with staffing challenges in 2023? Do you believe it will improve in 2024?
Over the past couple of years, organizations responded to the pandemic by implementing creative measures to attract and retain employees. Businesses had to assess their benefit programs, ensuring they had competitive compensation programs to enhance recruitment and increase retention. Financial incentives, such as sign-on, retention and referral bonuses were employed. Some companies provided transportation to and from sites, particularly in remote locations.

As we enter 2024, fill rates and turnover rates are improving, showing signs of a softening labor market. Ongoing efforts in competitive compensation and employee retention and engagement will remain important. However, there could be a reduction in the need for incentives to attract and retain talent, potentially including fewer monetary incentives. A more stabilized workforce suggests reduced reliance on these strategies.

Are there career pathways or advancement opportunities being promoted within the industry?
The waste and recycling industry may not be considered glamorous, but it does offer meaningful work in a tremendously stable and impactful field. Despite not being the first choice for many when starting a career, those who enter it often find it intriguing and rewarding. Knowing your work contributes to sustainability and a cleaner planet can be a key motivator for many. It is an exciting industry to launch and develop a career, with many organizations and companies offering rewarding career path opportunities. The industry widely recognizes that talent is vital for future success and has implemented various initiatives to attract skilled and educated individuals.

Career pathing and advancement opportunity are key recruiting tools to attract talent to this challenging yet rewarding industry. We have found that clear career pathways not only draw individuals in, but also contribute to talent retention. More than 38 percent of our managers started in entry-level jobs and 47 percent of our managers have been promoted from within. Our organization offers mentorship programs and well-defined career paths that recognize and reward both retention and performance. For example, a sorter’s career path could progress from sorter to screen cleaner, to line lead, to supervisor, to onsite manager, and finally to regional operations leadership. Another avenue for career development is through technical training and advancement.

How has the increased investment by majorcompanies in PRFs and plastic recovery initiatives influenced the overall growth and development of the recycling industry workforce?
The rise of the circular economy has created various work environments adjacent to the traditional recycling (MRF) operations. We are engaging with several companies with new operating locations and facility types closely tied to the increased recovery and circularity of plastics.

While labor needs are similar to traditional MRFs relying on general labor/sorters, there is a growing need for skilled labor and specialized knowledge to reach production objectives and adherence to stringent material quality specifications. These operations have high levels of automation and technical complexity, requiring a different skillset than traditional MRFs.

As these facilities are developed and implemented, the workforce must continuously evolve and keep pace with the changes. This introduces an added layer of complexity into the recycling ecosystem. Attracting new talent into the industry through trade schools or post-graduate programs is one approach to consider. Ensuring diverse entry points is essential for a dynamic and responsive workforce necessary to sustain the advancement of circularity throughout our industry.

How are training and education programs adapting to meet the evolving skill requirements of the recycling industry workforce?
Employees benefit from understanding the entire recycling ecosystem and the context of their work. As the ecosystem becomes more complex, there is an ongoing and greater need for education. Onsite education provides first-hand training, offering insights into roles and staying abreast of advancements in automation. New hire orientation should include education on processing automation, material quality specifications, and safety, etc. Equipment manufacturing companies provide technical training opportunities with a focus on career development and progression. Additionally, many companies extend career pathing and advancement opportunities.

It is important to highlight that safety remains paramount. Safety training and educational programs are crucial for the well-being of both workers and companies, emphasizing that maintaining a safe environment should be everyone’s primary responsibility. | WA

Mike Huycke is VP of Business Development for Leadpoint and can be reached at (602) 431-0410, e-mail [email protected], or visit https://leadpointusa.com.