“A culture that nobody wants to walk away from”
Foster Farms is nearing its 25th year in operation in Cowlitz County, where it’s provided many jobs to the community that it’s grown alongside. Foster Farms is dedicated to providing sustainable and quality poultry to their customers nationwide. Our partners at WorkSource had the opportunity to sit down with Production Manager Renee Hernandez to learn more about the organization and her personal journey within it.
WorkSource is funded by federal and state grants that it receives through the local workforce development board Workforce Southwest Washington with the goal to help people get back to work, often collaborating with employers to place qualified job seekers in quality jobs. As community members, and employment thought leaders, we believe Foster Farms exemplifies quality jobs.
For one, Foster Farms starts new employees at $19/hour, well above the Washington state minimum wage of $14.49/hour—and still more than the state’s inevitable January 1 increase to $15.74. But wage is only one part of the equation. Renee’s journey at Foster Farms paints a portrait of a company that takes employee retention seriously and thrives because of it. Renee calls it, “a culture that nobody wants to walk away from.”
Renee came to Foster Farms 21 years ago as a young single parent looking for work. When she started, it was a competitive work environment in which she sought to set herself apart, despite her lack of experience. “I just paid attention to my surroundings and what was going on around me,” she said. With this learning mentality, she was able to identify opportunities for better processes, communicate them to her supervisor, and get noticed.
Throughout her time at Foster Farms, Renee has worn many hats—starting as a floor worker and working her way up to her current position, Production Manager, where she oversees a team of 570 employees. According to data supplied by Workforce Southwest Washington, this is a position filled by women roughly 24% of the time—putting Foster Farms on the progressive forefront of promotional practices.
One of the biggest factors in her rise through the ranks was Foster Farms’ support. Renee didn’t go to college, but her company made sure she had the training she needed along the way to aid her growth. When asked if she believed a new hire would still have the same opportunities for promotion as she did, her answer was, “Absolutely.”
Hiring is only half of the equation at Foster Farms. As Renee says, “It’s one thing to try to bring team members in the door. But what are you doing to keep them?” Foster Farms’ retention best practices are as thorough as they are impressive. They include:
– Weekly meetings with new team members.
– Requesting feedback on their onboarding.
– Asking new team members simple questions to be sure they’re being taught essential information about their work environment.
– Providing new team members with experienced work buddies to show them the ropes.
– Asking new team members if they feel safe.
It’s the last question that might be the quietest factor in employee retention, but also the most important. It’s easy to take safety for granted, but a company’s reputation can be severely harmed if that idea doesn’t translate into a working reality. In fact, when asked what qualities they look for in candidates right now, Renee said, “The number one requirement we have is safety.” This alignment of values in employee and employer is one way in which Foster Farms is able to create and maintain a culture of retention.
Employee engagement and self-sufficiency wages are two of the Quality Jobs strategies Workforce Southwest Washington (WSW) recently released to aid companies with employee recruitment and retention.
“The Quality Jobs framework has a robust list of strategies that employers can plug and play to implement their area of focus,” said Alyssa Joyner, WSW’s Senior Project Manager for Manufacturing. “We understand that not every employer can meet all the standards all at once, and that’s okay. Quality Jobs is a starting point for companies to begin thinking about and making changes that make sense to fit their needs for employee recruitment and retention.”
The other aspect that aids in retention is the wide availability of jobs at the company. Even Renee admits, “…hanging chickens might not be the job for everybody.” There’s a wide range of positions and the company works hard to find the right fit for people within the organization. If that means a change of department, rather than a termination—so be it. Fittingly, Foster Farms currently has 166 team members that have been with the company for more than 10 years.
Like many organizations, Foster Farms has been affected by the COVID pandemic. Their team members were classed as essential and maintained a production schedule, despite dealing with staffing shortages. Their team has made good use of WorkSource by participating in local hiring events and sourcing job candidates from the pool of local attendees.
WorkSource collaborates with companies like Foster Farms all the time to connect them with job seekers, but hiring events are one way that these employers can meet a large number of them at once and in person. The added benefit of partnering with WorkSource is that many of these candidates may be eligible for support services like gas money, tools, and childcare assistance—an added bonus that can also positively impact employee retention.
Foster Farms will celebrate a quarter century in Cowlitz County in May 2023. In that time, it has established itself as a community lynchpin in Kelso, WA by placing an emphasis on competitive wages, employee retention, and safety. Coupled with a transparent, people-centered environment (as Renee says, “We think of each other as a family.”) —Foster Farms has a recipe for success.
WorkSource is a network of nonprofits, community-based organizations, local and state agencies working in partnership to provide an array of employment and training services to job seekers and businesses in Washington State. WorkSource is funded through the local workforce development board, Workforce Southwest Washington. For information, visit www.WorkSourceWA.com.
Companies interested in learning more about how WorkSource can support their hiring and retention needs should contact Gherid Smick at email@example.com or (360) 578-4226.
Businesses interested in partnering with Workforce Southwest Washington to support your business needs, contact Darcy Hoffman, Director of Business Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.608.4949 or submit a request and we’ll contact you.
Interested in learning more about Quality Jobs? Workforce Southwest Washington, in partnership with the Clackamas Workforce Partnership and Worksystems, released the Quality Jobs Framework to provide guidance and support to regional businesses seeking to improve job quality.