BFC explores employee training, retention

By Lisa Gibson | September 27, 2017

Employers are expecting more from their employees, and it’s crucial to expand training to begin at the basics, Shana McAlexander told the crowd at the 13th annual Christianson Biofuels Financial Conference in Minneapolis Sept. 27. When employees are well-trained and understand the reasons behind their jobs, they do their jobs better.

McAlexander, a training specialist with Novozymes North America Inc., discussed optimal training techniques for the next generation of ethanol plant employees. A 20-minute downtime at a 55 MMgy plant costs about $3,000, she said. And mistakes such as forgetting to add enzymes, using improper procedures, or facilitating poor yeast health through nitrogen addition can have a huge impact on yield, as well as coproducts and recycle, she said.

McAlexander cited figures from 2016 that showed ethanol plants in the U.S. spent about $1,200 per employee on training, at about 33.5 hours of training per employee. Those costs include equipment, safety training programs, staff members hired for training purposes, and more.

To address training needs, Novozymes created its Bioenergy University online training program, tailored to encompass the needs of the trainees. “The days of hour-long courses are over,” McAlexander said. We’re seeing a lot more videos; a little nugget of information that someone can digest and move on.” The program uses new ways to increase engagement with technology: improved designs; mini videos; interactivity; gamification; virtual reality; tracking; and formative and summative assessment. Engaging trainees is crucial, she emphasized to her audience.   

The panel, “Workforce Management,” also featured James Seurer, CEO of Glacial Lakes Energy LLC, who discussed turnover and succession and talked about how the company adapted to the modern workforce. Before changes were implement, surveys at Glacial Lakes Energy showed turnover rates were worse than its peers’, and exit interviews indicated low pay was a common complaint, he said. “Our compensation strategy needed to change.”

The action plan included increasing starting wages and annual increases, among others. Glacial Lakes Energy also has a Grow Our Own Workforce program, which includes working with technical institutes and offering scholarships. Through the scholarships, Glacial Lakes Energy pays 50 percent of the tuition for a two-year program and the students work for the company for three years after graduation. Seurer strongly encouraged plants to develop a similar program, showing smiling photos of the most recent scholarship recipients. 

While all solutions Seurer shared for attracting and retaining employees have a price tag, they’re worth it. “We’ve chosen to pay now and see those numbers stay high, downtimes stay low and production continue favorably.”