By Veronica Marian
On a typical day in Bangalore at a menswear garment factory, between five and ten women with no prior work experience walk in seeking employment as entry-level sewing operators. The factory makes shirts, pants, and jackets, earning about half a million dollars in annual revenues. Its above-market wages and child care make it an attractive workplace for its workforce. Of the factory’s 2000 workers, roughly 90 percent are women from nearby villages, half of whom have never worked anywhere else.
Aruna Ranganathan, a faculty affiliate of the Stanford King Center on Global Development and Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, discovered an empirical puzzle when visiting this factory a few years ago: within the first few weeks, many recently hired women quit their jobs. It turns out that 36 percent of first-time workers at this factory leave within three months and 11 percent leave after just one month.
After two years of data gathering and interviews, Ranganathan and her team concluded that the most significant factor determining whether a first-time worker remained employed was the trainer who initially prepared them for the job. Newcomer women whose trainers focused on social skills such as time management and communication, in addition to the necessary technical skills, had a 20 percent higher probability of being retained after three months.
The socializing role of workplace training programs
Ranganathan studies questions surrounding work and employment in the context of economic development. She found that the training program at the factory was one of the first organizational programs that the first-time women workers were exposed to.
“I began to wonder whether this training program might influence women’s retention,” Ranganathan said. “In this way, the topic of first-time worker retention and training programs emerged inductively.”
“The trainer is often the first organizational member that a first-time worker engages with over an extended period of time,” Ranganathan explains. “As such, trainers make a deep impression on the workers and choices made by the trainers, including what to focus on in the course of the training, crucially impact workers’ lives.”
The factory’s eleven trainers conducted one on one training with newcomers for about three weeks. Roughly half were “experienced” – meaning they had nine or more years of work experience themselves. While the purpose of the training period is to introduce the newcomers to “on the job skills,” Ranganathan found that the experienced trainers focused on four categories that were not directly related to the actual sewing production: work-life balance, self-reliance , self-presentation, and interpersonal communication.
Nearly all the women entering the workforce at this factory had families and home lives that kept them very busy and often stressed. Each of the experienced trainers Ranganathan spoke to described trainees who “cried every day worrying about their family and personal problems,” and shared their efforts to counsel these women on “how to deal with balancing work and personal issues.” However, newcomers who were trained by less experienced trainers more often reported feeling “exhausted and stressed,” even reporting “brain freezes” as a result of work and life pressures.
Self-reliance was also a vital aspect the “work-life balance” socialization training. Newcomers were encountering work pressure for the first time. Experienced trainers encouraged newcomers to take care of themselves and remember the basics like taking breaks to drink water or use the bathroom.
How and when to get to work was another issue that workers were dealing with for the first time. One experienced trainer explained how the idea of reaching somewhere by a certain time is a novel concept to newcomers. The trainer taught their trainees about bus schedules and advised them which to take in order to make it to work by 9am. In contrast, less experienced trainers did not consider this part of the training, thus their trainees were often late.
“One memory that has stayed with me from these home visits is how newcomers to the factory agonized over what to wear to work,” Ranganathan recalled. “I remember a home visit where a worker laid out several of her sarees in front of us and went on to analyze the appropriateness of each of the sarees for the workplace. I was struck by how a seemingly simple decision – what to wear to work – might be stressful for first-time workers who have not been a part of the formal labor force before.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by trainers and trainees in regards to interpersonal communication, where experienced trainers encouraged women to speak up and be more outgoing, while inexperienced trainers averted the issue.
“While the less experienced trainers were focused on making their trainees ready for their specific operation,” Ranganathan said, “the experienced trainers were personally invested in the women they were training and helping these women successfully adjust to garment factory life.”
Creating a lasting impact on worker training programs
“My hope is that this research will impact how training is conducted at the factory that we studied,” Ranganathan said. “When I presented the findings to the factory management, we brainstormed ways to reduce variance in the content of training between different trainers.”
One practice that Ranganathan discussed with management is the possibility of implementing a daily check-in meeting for the trainers to discuss the challenges that they were facing while providing training to newcomers, as well as sharing best practices with respect to how they were approaching their training. The factory that Ranganathan studied was also part of an industry association where best practices in the industry are regularly discussed and disseminated.
By focusing on women, an understudied population of workers, Ranganathan’s research demonstrates that socialization in the workplace operates differently for first-time workers from a historically underrepresented group. “Work readiness” turns out to be a vital group of skills more than just technical abilities that need to be learned. Due to a lack of exposure to formal employment, first-time workers from underrepresented groups are unaware of how to conduct themselves at work, although this does not mean that they cannot, with training, learn.
“More broadly, my research generates insights that I think can inform training programs targeted at historically disadvantaged groups in other contexts as well,” Ranganathan explains “For example, the idea that training programs need to focus explicitly on work-readiness might be useful in preparing veterans who are re-integrating back into the formal workforce.”
The study has implications for both public policy and organizational practice. Millions of workers are entering formal employment for the first time as a result of globalization and job creation, and this study’s findings have the potential to shape policies that will facilitate their retention.