Rite Aid trains staff so they'll want to stay Retention: Drugstore chain pays its "hourly partners" to study at a new center in Perryman and at Harford Community College.

November 10, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

In an effort to avoid costly employee turnover, Rite Aid Corp. is spending more money on worker retention in the hopes that it will save much more down the road.

The Camp Hill, Pa.-based drugstore chain is using the construction of its $90 million, million-square-foot Mid-Atlantic Customer Support Center in Perryman, Harford County -- which opened in September -- to try a new approach, said Jim Orahood, the facility's general manager.

Orahood, other company officials and Harford Community College have designed a six-week, paid training program for workers to tackle the reasons behind turnover, such as lack of worker cohesiveness, teamwork and a corporate culture.

The company decided to base its culture on values such as integrity, mutual respect, work-family balance, fun and work ethic.

"This is the Rite Aid culture of the future," Orahood said.

And that's just not pie-in-the-sky optimism. The training program is to be duplicated at a soon-to-be-constructed Rite Aid customer center in Lancaster, Calif., and the program will be implemented at a third center planned for the Midwest.

"When you look at what's happening in the work force, retention is one of the biggest issues," said Mary Leavens, director of corporate training at Harford Community College. "So much time and energy go into finding the right people. Losing any of them always causes problems."

Retention could be a serious issue in Harford County, where there are about 50 distribution centers.

The training includes one week at the Rite Aid center, three weeks at Harford Community College, then two weeks of on-the-job-training back at the center.

The training takes place five days a week, eight hours a day. The program began at the center in April, though it did not open for warehouse operations until September, and is mandatory for managers and "hourly partners," as workers are called.

The first week is for orientation, and workers learn the value of team-building, communication and leadership.

During sessions at HCC, workers receive training in the logistics of distribution systems in a curriculum developed by the company and HCC. They study warehouse management systems, receiving and storing operations, merchandise shipping and OSHA safety requirements. The workers are tested every day.

Then the workers return to the Rite Aid facility for hands-on experience.

"At Rite Aid, I feel like a person. There's a mutual respect and I feel like I can voice my opinions," said George Hofferbert, a former steel foreman who joined the company's centralized products division after 11 years at a steel plant.

"They treat people here the way they should be treated," he said. "Of course I was like,'Oh, come on. No company goes by those rules.' But Rite Aid makes a hard effort to meet those values."

All 850 of the facility's workers are to be trained; about 520 have been trained so far in groups of 20. A team graduates each Friday. Even the trucking, food services and janitorial vendors go through a week of training to learn team-building. Training is expected to continue through spring.

The training program -- and the new Rite Aid culture -- comes at a price, but officials say they expect bottom-line benefits in return.

The program costs about $48,000 in wages alone for each six-week training session for 20 hourly partners. Each worker starts at $10 an hour.

The company has spent about $2 million on books, materials and its contract with Harford Community College, said Ray Glabb, a training manager.

"Six weeks of paid training is a huge cost for any company," Orahood said. "But the question is: What would be the cost if we didn't?"

Rite Aid's plan of attack on employee turnover is an appropriate approach, work force development experts said. Replacing a worker can cost between $2,000 and two or three times the previous worker's salary, they said. And employees tend to stay at companies that provide initial and continuing training, they added.

"Spending more upfront is a lot better than having to pay time and time again when workers leave your work force," said Mark Cheskin, a member of the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

"If employee services are viewed as a commodity, it's a seller's market," he said. "Anything an employer can do to make a job more appealing for retention purposes makes a lot of sense."

The Rite Aid center is open 16 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. When it is up-to-speed, it will service nearly half of Rite Aid's 4,000 stores.

To help alleviate employee stress, the facility has a four-days-on, three-days-off work schedule that allows workers to have five days off in a row 17 times a year.

"Rite Aid has raised the bar," Orahood said. "After week one, wages and benefits are no longer a motivator. We need something to keep workers here."

Aside from the paid training program, that "something" includes dozens of perks and emotional rewards.

In the work area, there are water fountains every 50 feet, and free coffee is available.

Near the facility's cafeteria are pool tables, table tennis, and telephones where workers can make free, local calls. There's also a fully stocked exercise gym with an attached aerobics room, and an instructor has been hired.

Also, attending classes at HCC during the training program has sparked an interest in attaining a college degree among some workers. Rite Aid, in a departure from company policy, now offers tuition assistance for workers interested in attending HCC.

"They said they would treat us as equals, and it's holding true," said Nancy Lingo, who works in Rite Aid's drug department. She worked in Aberdeen's public works department for five years.

Pete Welch, a former supervisor at the Saks Fifth Avenue distribution center in Aberdeen, left after a year to work at Rite Aid. His biggest complaint about his former employer was the minimal training. "Rite Aid is doing things differently," Welch said, "and it's a good change."

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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