March 9, 2022

We have moved past panic. We are now fully immersed in understanding the problem and fixing it.

Adrienne Selko

Last year, more than 47 million Americans walked away from their jobs. While manufacturing did not have the quit rates of other industries, the message was still heard, loud and clear. Employees are so unhappy with the state of their employment that they are willing to vote with their feet. The workplace equation of power shifted, and after decades of employer domination, employees are gaining strength.

While dubbed the “Great Resignation,” that term might be a misnomer. It’s true people are leaving their present jobs, but in many cases, they are moving into different ones. Understanding what they are moving to and why is at the crux of dealing with the current state of the workforce, and maybe more importantly, determining what the future state needs to be.

“Employees are leaving their jobs for better pay and working conditions,” says Carl Van Horn, founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and a scholar with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.“While some feel they are working too many hours without an increase, others feel they are underpaid in general.”

Heldrich Center research supports the economic underpinnings of this exodus. The survey, Work Trends, found that six in 10 people were very concerned about the cost of living in 2021. Combined with the study’s other finding that most surveyed were not concerned about their own job security at the end of 2021, this created an ideal time to switch jobs.

“Many workers have heard from colleagues who have found better jobs, further encouraging them to seek new opportunities,” says Van Horn. Consequently, the report shows that 75% said that now was a good time to find a job.

Culture Is Stronger than Money

Beau Davidson, vice president of employee experience at computer chip maker Nvidia, would take issue with Van Horn’s assessment. “A company with a strong culture, where employees feel supported will retain them,” he explains. And that support includes ensuring that employees find new opportunities within the company. “We don’t want our employees to find their second-best career somewhere else, when they can find (their best careers) right here.”

Nvidia Corporation

Nvidia’s corporate headquarters is located in Santa, Clara, California.

Davidson points to Nvidia’s high retention rate and large number of employees who have been with the company for many years as evidence of a culture that meets employees’ needs. Even in the top job, longevity applies. Company CEO Jensen Huang founded the company in 1993.

While the pandemic tested the strength of many companies’ cultures, including Nvidia, Davidson says they were prepared to face the challenge. “When an employee in our office in Russia was hospitalized with COVID and had to be moved to a special facility, and our insurance did not cover that, he got in touch with us and we paid the necessary costs to have him moved.”

Another method of helping employees during the pandemic was putting extra dollars into their hands earlier so they were able to take care of any economic disruptions that occurred, says Davidson. For example, in the company’s India office, where getting to a bank was difficult because of movement restrictions, the company made sure employees had funds. The company continually asked: “What can we do to make life better for employees during COVID,” Davidson says.

These actions and others enabled employees to feel comfortable reaching out to any level of the organization and letting the company know they needed assistance. “We leaned into our culture of support of employees rather than retract away from it during COVID-19,” says Davidson. “Our CEO and leadership team did a fantastic job of reassuring employees that the company will provide whatever support is necessary during COVID.”

And what made that ring true to employees, says Davidson, is that the company has always been supportive. He notes that Nvidia led Glassdoor’s annual list, released in January, of best places to work among large companies.

Cornelia Shipley, CEO of 3C Consulting, who has worked with many manufacturing companies including, Ford, Pfizer, General Motors, Coca-Cola and Honda, says you can’t underestimate the power of a company’s culture. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner and twice on Sunday,” she says.

She sees the new power of the employees, as evidenced by those leaving jobs, as a wake-up call to companies about how important a good culture is to retention and attraction. While the current situation is extreme, with employees leaving in record numbers, she believes that conditions will circle back towards the middle.

“We won’t move back to where employers had as much power as they did the past,” Shipley notes.

Flexibility, Trust and Communication Must be Foundation of Culture

Davidson says Nvidia is aware of this power shift, and as its culture continues to evolve the company will keep in mind the desires of future employees. He sees flexibility as an essential requirement of the future workforce.

“One of the things we tried not to do is create a one-company approach to how people work; everyone’s job is different,” Davidson says. “We want to have a strong relationship between employees and managers so they can have those discussions.”

Flexibility is also increasing across the factory floor, says Shipley. “Some of our clients have allowed production workers to share sick time, as needed, during the pandemic. And we have seen factories add extra shifts, even if running 24/7, so there is another group of workers available to fill in.”

These steps are just the beginning, Shipley points out. “Companies need to more fully understand the specific needs of the production staff, as they are different from other job functions. Organizations that listen carefully to what these workers need will be more competitive in the market,” she says.

Nvidia Corp.

Nvidia employees embraced more flexible operating patterns during the pandemic.

Davidson would agree that listening to employees is a hallmark of success, and his company has set up several methods to do just that. Nvidia’s Employee Resource Center has been especially useful during the pandemic. The human resources team is tightly integrated into this center and other forms of communication.

Encouraging employees to share their views stems from a foundation of trust. “For leaders to be trusted they need to be accountable,” says Shipley. “Historically, we have been a culture that has not held people accountable, and so we need leaders to adjust to that. Expectations of leaders has shifted, and this is now essential.”

To be accountable, leaders must clearly understand the needs of the workforce. Nvidia polls employees with what it calls Pulse surveys, to gather sentiment.

“We scour through tens of thousands of comments to understand what’s on the minds of employees and then create solutions across the company,” says Davidson. Continuous improvement is a goal on the manufacturing floor, and it’s applied to employee engagement as well. “We know we need to double down on our listening mechanism. We keep improving our cycle of listening, supporting and acting upon employee feedback,” he says.

That support extends to ensuring employees move in the career direction they desire. “We regularly rotate people into new opportunities,” Davidson says. “We want people to clearly understand the breadth of opportunities that are available, across our entire footprint, and so we host what we call Career Chats. An employee can discuss what interests they have, find out what jobs would fit that and learn what training might be necessary.”

Davidson offers himself as a perfect example of how to retain employees. Davidson said that while he has always loved his job, he felt that he might like to expand his role. Several years ago, he received his current title. “I feel re-energized and am happy to continue to work for this company,” he says.

The Great Resignation 

Throughout 2021, a record 47.4 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs, a 30% increase from 2020. The figure includes people who retired, quit to find new jobs or voluntarily left their jobs after finding new opportunities. Involuntary separations, such as layoffs and firings, hit an all-time low in December 2021, as employers struggled to keep the employees they had.

  • Job openings: December 2020: 7 million
  • Job openings: December 2021: 11 million, a 62% increase
  • Firings and layoffs throughout 2019: 22 million (closely matching an 8-year average)
  • Firings and layoffs throughout 2020: 41 million (badly distorted by COVID-19 shutdowns in March)
  • Firings and layoffs throughout 2021: 17 million (21% lower than the 2011-2019 average)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 

Top 10 Questions to Ask on Employee Sentiment Surveys 

  • How would you describe the company culture?
  • Do you think your work is meaningful and valued?
  • Do you feel like all of your talents are being used in your position?
  • Do you get the learning and development opportunities that you want?
  • Would you apply for your job with us again if you had to do it all over?
  • Do you get the support and tools you need to do your job well?
  • Does your manager ask for your feedback and value it when it’s offered?
  • Do you feel like our expectations of you are clear?
  • How well do you think our company communicates news and important information?
  • Does your job cause you excessive stress?