MRF workers have one of the most overlooked jobs in the industry. Now, in the wake of tighter quality standards, the pressure to increase worker productivity has intensified, and demand for labor has grown at many facilities.
Leadpoint Business Services is considered one of the leading options for outsourcing that work. While the company works in multiple industries, it actually got its start with recycling more than 20 years ago. Today, multiple senior executives hail from major industry companies, and the company's vice president of safety is an NWRA member. Leadpoint employs an estimated 2,000 people at MRFs around the country, utilizing what it calls a "work team" model that is said to improve both employee retention and operational productivity.
Waste Dive recently spoke with Pat Hudson, vice president of sales and marketing, to learn more about this often unexplored side of the recycling value chain.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and annotated for context.
WASTE DIVE: There is a perception that temporary labor can be unsafe, and some executives have told me they believe that's the case, but I know Leadpoint feels different. Why do you think the company shouldn't be categorized in that same group?
PAT HUDSON: Traditional staffing companies will have in a branch location 20, 30, 40 customers. So everyone that walks through the front door is eligible — most temporary staffing companies will hire 80-90% of the individuals that are walking in the door.
At Leadpoint, we work at the customer site, and everyone that applies for the job is applying for that position. So we advertise only for those positions, we interview for those positions, we train for those positions. That in itself begins the process and makes a big difference for the customer, because they come in knowing exactly what they're getting into.
We get about 12,000 applications a month and about 2,000-3,000 of those, on average, make it through the interview process to being hired.
So you're saying the portrayal of anyone walking in from the temp office and starting work that day is not accurate, and there's a more selective screening process?
HUDSON: Yeah, and that's the biggest difference.
When we're in a location, we are not a temporary job. It's a full-time position. You're assigned based on your qualifications and skill sets, and we are going to train you. You're given career mobility. Quite a few of our site managers and leaders started years ago in positions. We have managers now that have been with us for 15 years; they started in the sort position a long time ago.
I've been in the staffing business going on 20 years. So I have nothing against, or a problem with, staffing. There are just different scenarios where temp staffing, and what we consider outsourcing work, are more appropriate for the customer.
A lot of times, companies say they need temp labor or outsourcing because the churn is so high. It sounds like Leadpoint, when all things go well, has people sticking around for a long time. Is that unique to your company, or is turnover not as high at MRFs are some might think?
HUDSON: No, turnover is high.
I just did some analysis, and if you look at the demographics in this particular site, 18- to 25-year-olds were lasting for this customer about 30 days. 25- to 34-[year-olds] were lasting about 45. Then throughout those age brackets, the millennials, Generation X, different ones were lasting different times. So we actually look at the psychology and the science behind what attracts people to this role. What are they looking for? Are they looking for long term, an opportunity to a career path? That's how we approach it differently in order to raise that level of retention.
So, traditionally, it's a labor job. There's going to be turnover. But much like manufacturing went through an evolution from the '60s through today, you can get much more efficient. You can get higher retention, which results in higher productivity, if you pay attention to what's driving those folks to stay and make that investment. People in [the MRF environment] are just used to thinking that temporary labor is all there is. So when they tell you that, it's because that's what their experience is. Their experience is "it's 100% or higher turnover, and I've never seen anyone change that."
When we go in, they never fail to very quickly realize, "Well, this can be done." It's because those candidates and those folks that we put in the job want to be there. They want the opportunity. They see it as an opportunity to get from wherever they are today to their goals, which is permanent employment: benefits for their family; they get vacation time; they get paid days off; sick time; all the things you would get, of course, in any other career path. And they get training. They get the opportunity to move into management, to travel. There's just enormous opportunity, and that's just a very different scenario. For the customer, the cost is very similar to what they were paying for temporary labor. So sometimes it's almost "this is too good to be true," we hear from them.
It does sound better than the average description I hear about working at a MRF. So even with all of that, unemployment is still low, and people may be able to find similar benefits and wages rates elsewhere. Even at the cleanest, best MRF, it's a tough job, right?
So what has been successful in recruiting people to say, "We know this seems tough, but it's worth it for you?"
HUDSON: Well, there's a job for everyone, I believe.
As long as you're looking at the wage — you don't have to pay the highest in the market, but you do have to be equitable with what the market rate is. Other than that, what people are looking at today is the benefits, the ability to have some flexibility in their scheduling.
So traditionally at an MRF, they operate 55 hours a week. That's when they need people. Then, the mental model is, "I need people to work full-time shifts. That's all I do." Well, if you can staff and get the production out of folks that are working two days a week, or four days a week, then those folks are very happy and very successful in that environment because you're meeting them where they are. It's looking at the markets and looking at the customer and adjusting your employment model or your employee experience to match what their needs are in that marketplace.
That tracks with what we're hearing about recruitment strategies for other positions in the industry, being regionally targeted. I recognize this will differ locally, but what's the average rate someone could expect starting out at Leadpoint?
HUDSON: It's hard to say one thing across the board, but we do a wage analysis for every location. In that wage analysis, we look at the specific types of labor: warehouse, assembly line, the environmental factors — because it's usually going to be maybe not outdoors, but there's going to be some exposure to the elements. So those jobs, if they cross-translate, and then making sure we're competitive with those positions. That's usually at about the 50th percentile of the prevailing wage in that market for a production or warehouse labor position. That can be anywhere from a few dollars above minimum wage to several dollars in some markets. Now, the exception to that of course is there are cities and states that consider this role a prevailing-wage position, because it's either part of a municipality or associated with a municipality.
Questions around applying prevailing or living wage laws to MRF employees have come up in multiple cities recently, including Boston and San Diego.
Is that a case-by-case situation in your experience, or is it becoming more common for cities to want to see MRFs covered?
HUDSON: I'm not seeing a ton of it ... What I am seeing more and more in talking to municipalities directly is that municipalities are very concerned with the quality of life and the performance of their workforce, and are asking very good questions. In their RFPs and in their contracts, [they] are asking for good benefit packages for these labor positions. I was glad to see that.
Not only is the wage a fair wage, but they're looking to make sure companies like Leadpoint are providing these benefits and days off. So that's putting a little pressure on the staffing companies to be able to adjust and provide that as well.
I was at a meeting yesterday where a customer said, "We're willing to pay for it. We just want to see the benefit, the cost analysis, and we want to make sure these folks that come to work in our multiple locations are taken care of."
A lot of times when this comes up, it seems like the owner of the MRF may be willing to follow the local policy, but will expect cities to share the majority of the cost. How have you seen that play out lately?
HUDSON: I'm seeing that shift. I think that has shifted over the last few years. This is my opinion: In the change with China and pressure on quality, the shift with the operators, the large companies that do operations for municipalities, we're getting a lot of conversations directly now from municipalities that understand you can't just give somebody our garbage and have them take it for free, or even pay us for it and then process it.
We're going have to pay for that, and [municipalities] want to do the right thing. They want to be good stewards of the environment, but they also want to make sure they're taking care of the employees, which are also their constituents. So I'm seeing a pretty good shift across the country, and I can't even tell you that if it's more on the West Coast or East Coast. I've been around the country and talked to municipalities, and I've seen that this is a big part of every conversation.
The conversation occurred the same day that new Bureau of Labor Statistics data came out showing a significant spike in the injury rate for MRF workers in 2017. Waste Dive hadn't yet reviewed the data, but that number also increased in 2016, giving MRFs the highest injury rate in the industry.
Needle sticks have been getting a lot of attention lately. What else should people think about when they think about making MRFs safer?
HUDSON: Yeah, needle sticks have been and continue to be an issue. Part of that issue, and part of what we believe as a company, is that the needle sticks and the contamination in the stream coming into the facility is really at the root of the issue ... In some communities, you have next to [no contamination]. The communities that do real well have years of experience, but what we've found is it takes an ongoing community education partnership.
I have a good relationship with The Recycling Partnership. We are very much in favor of that because it makes our job easier to help the facilities get to their goals if we're also participating in identifying what the challenges are, what the trends are. So we will also go out with customers in municipalities and do contamination studies and support that process. We're 100% behind it. We believe a side benefit indirectly is an improvement in safety.
There's a lot of things that can happen, but I think the watchword is "vigilance," making sure we're paying attention to it, that we don't lose focus on educating the community and in paying attention to what's coming into the MRF, so we keep our folks safe.
Hudson also mentions collaborative efforts with safety equipment companies, led by Vice President of Safety & Compliance Brian Haney, to "build a better glove."
He works with some of the manufacturers and over the years; we've been able to offer some ideas and get them to build a product. I can remember 10 years ago everybody using the same glove I used out in the garden.
[Now] Kevlar and other things are being put in there so that we can — we haven't been able to eliminate it, but really reduce the needle sticks and the chances for cuts and abrasions. I think we've done a great job to this point. I think there's still a lot more to do.
Again, there's still a sense that especially the pre-sort jobs, maybe even in the best conditions, aren't desirable jobs. Some believe they will get replaced by automation. Where do you see this all going in the next couple of years?
HUDSON: I think automation's going to play a big role. I think it would be foolish for Leadpoint to say, "Oh, no, it's going to be people because that's the business we've been in." We've been historically an innovative, future-looking organization. So several years ago, we began working with folks offering advice and working with the companies that are developing the AI intelligence, not so much the equipment side, the robotic, but the intelligence of how to look for and what to get there. That's something that I think in collaboration with the labor will help us — again, from a safety standpoint, from an efficiency standpoint — get to a much more manageable headcount, labor force that's more effective.
So there's still a role for the skilled, work-team approach — maybe in a variety of positions at the facility. It's probably tough to get those front-line people, and if there's less need, that makes everyone's life easier. Is that fair to say?
HUDSON: The mental model that traditional operators, people that have been in recycling for years and years and years, is you need a lot of bodies, and you're going to have to operate with overtime. Well, we don't necessarily buy into that. We believe you can operate, give people an opportunity, and through the use of technology, through our data tracking of individual performance, we can help people get better.
Robotics and AI are just the next step in that evolution, so we're 100% on board with that. Our goal is to help our customers do more with less. That's what we start out with. Our goal is not to get them more head count, it's to help them get their production up.