Ask him how Imperial Sugar Company plans to develop its workforce, and Bruce Waguespack, the company’s manager of learning and performance improvement, begins his answer by offering a baseball analogy.

“We have to gain bench strength,” Waguespack says. “Like having a baseball player on your team who can be a catcher or play the outfield, we need people who are capable of working several different jobs. That’s looking across the horizontal axis, at the breadth of qualifications across the workforce. Then we have to look at depth: How much does each person know about each of those jobs?”

In the past, an employee may have been hired to, say, drive a front-end loader in the warehouse. After working well in that role for a while, he might have moved up to an Operator II job. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the right skill set — at the right level — to be successful in his new role,” says Port Wentworth refinery manager Jim Flynn. “We want to set up employees for success.”

The time is ripe for taking a focused look at the way refinery workers are hired, trained and promoted, say the managers. As Port Wentworth prepares to add another shift to its operation, Flynn is preparing to staff up. And given leadership’s ongoing push for process improvement, Flynn and Waguespack realize that a strong, capable workforce is key to gaining efficiencies in production.

“We need to know that employees can master the skills associated with each job,” Waguespack says.

That’s why Imperial Sugar Company is stepping up to take part in the Georgia Work Ready initiative. It is the first company in Savannah or Chatham County to do so.

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue launched the initiative in 2006 to spark economic growth. Behind the initiative is this logic: Prepare the state’s workforce by offering training and skills certification through technical colleges, and local businesses will have the talent pool they need for growth.

The benefit of the initiative is twofold. Job-seekers can take assessments, available through technical colleges, that mark them as “work ready” for certain types of jobs. Meanwhile, employers like Imperial Sugar gain access to a “job profiling” program that helps them set skill standards for particular jobs and test job applicants for those skills.

At Port Wentworth, a team of eight operators from different areas of the plant have begun working with a job profiler, Ruthann Walsh of Savannah Technical College, to identify critical skills required for the Operator II job. Once that job profile is completed, managers can develop training material, a certification program to administer internally, and benchmarks for screening outside applicants.

“Once we have a baseline for what skills people need to have in order to be successful in their jobs, we take guesswork out of the equation,” Waguespack says. “We can’t develop our workforce on luck, we’ve got to develop on purpose.”

For example, a potential Operator II would be screened to verify that he has the right level of skill in applied mathematics, business writing, applied technology and other disciplines. For certain skills, he may even need to score at the highest level — platinum — or receive free “gap training” to improve in that area.

“It’s exciting from a company’s perspective,” says Walsh. “If a workforce has the right skills, production increases and workers are happy. By kicking off this initiative for Chatham County, Imperial Sugar is really showing leadership and a commitment to its employees — and to getting the best person in the job.”

To circle back to Waguespack’s baseball analogy, Imperial Sugar is very methodically planning for a grand slam.

Port Wentworth employees assisting with the job-profiling program, as part of the Georgia Work Ready initiative.