Four Takeaways From Our Conversation with ‘American Factory’ Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Four Takeaways From Our Conversation with ‘American Factory’ Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
A scene from Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s “American Factory.”

On October 9, the Talent Rewire community had the pleasure of  hosting Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the co-directors of the newly released documentary, American Factory, for our first Community Conversation.  The documentary, presented by Participant Media and the Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, gives audiences a close-up look at the reincarnation of a closed-down GM factory into a Chinese-owned automotive glass factory, Fuyao. The film sheds light on the web of experiences, motivations, and challenges within the workforce of Fuyao, from the frontline employees, to the floor supervisors, to the American executives charged with leading the company, to the Chairman of Fuyao himself, and begs the question, “what does it mean to be a good employer?” – a question we consistently explore in-depth within the Talent Rewire Community.

The conversation covered a lot of ground, from the business and social value of employers changing their talent systems, to the impact automation is having on employees’ lives, to the role of the middle class in fueling a vibrant national culture.  And as with many good conversations, I left with more questions than I started with.

How do we restore the American middle class?
According to census bureau figures, income inequality in America is at its highest level in 50 years.  As shown in the film, an employee who made $29/hour at GM now makes $12/hour at Fuyao. During the conversation, Riechert and Bognar asserted “if we’re going to have a real middle class in America that spends money at the mall, takes vacations, buys cars, and so forth we can’t have people earning minimum wage.” Paying $15/hour is one of the best practices of Opportunity Employment, but we can take it further.  Providing frontline employees with access to important benefits such as paid leave, transportation assistance, and financial literacy programs can also set them up for success, while also benefiting the business.

One of our community members, Rhino Foods, developed an Income Advance program, which guarantees same day access to $1,000 for emergencies or unplanned needs.  The advance is repaid through weekly payroll deductions, and once the loan is paid off, the deductions continue but into a savings account. The program benefits employees through reducing stress, improving credit, and increasing savings, while also creating a positive return for the company through reduced absenteeism, higher morale, and a more focused employee. Innovative programs like these are a great first step in helping restore a vibrant middle class.

Who holds the “power” to change outcomes for employees?
The obvious answer seems to be employers.  And while there are a growing number of employers who are committed to investing in both their communities and people (as evidenced by any one of our Talent Rewire Community Members), “they’re handcuffed by the quarterly shareholder report,” Reichert observes, “the tyranny of the margin.” Perhaps investors are the ones who are holding this problem in place; as a recent op-ed asserts – by moving “away from fundamental investing and its powerful social purposes…[investors are] extracting short-term profit for the few at society’s long-term expense.”  Either way, employers still have a tremendous opportunity to change their policies and practices – which are in their locus of control – to better support, develop, and advance their employees, while also improving their bottom line. Our Rewire Labs and Rewire Accelerator help employers identify key levers they can pull within their talent systems to positively impact their business and their employees.

How can we bridge the gap between employees and employers?
Reichert and Bognar observed a significant disconnect between Fuyao management and frontline employees: “There was a huge gap between what management would say and believe, and what the workers felt – we saw this over and over again…People management would tell us, ‘yeah we had that problem, don’t worry about it, we totally cleared that up,’ and they would believe it.  They sincerely thought they addressed the issue, and then you would ask the workers and they would just give you the evidence that it wasn’t cleared up at all.” The directors attributed the miscommunication to management not spending enough time on the floor and interacting with the frontline employees. This disconnect isn’t unique to Fuyao – we’ve observed this gap at other companies, both big and small. One of the ways we help employers address this challenge– and we encourage you to try it at your own organization –  is through applying user-centered design to their talent systems and putting frontline employees at the center when developing new talent practices, policies or programs.

Where will we see the next birth of great American music?
At the end of our conversation, Bognar shared an anecdote illustrating how a strong middle class fuels culture. Over the course of three decades, approximately 54,000 black people moved to Dayton. The combination of high-paying middle class jobs and thriving school music programs produced an environment for bands to flourish, positioning Dayton as “The Land of Funk.” We saw a similar dynamic in Detroit with Motown music. All of this is to say that employers have the opportunity to not only change outcomes for their employees, but also for their communities.

Take Caterpillar Inc. for example. One of their locations is in Peoria, IL, where 19% of Black Americans are unemployed, nearly five times more than the national unemployment rate of 4%. To meet their growing talent needs, they decided to partner with Peoria Public Schools to pilot a new program, “E4Life”, to attract and retain technical talent. Not only is E4Life creating a pipeline of diverse talent for Caterpillar, it’s also providing Peoria students an opportunity to earn a good wage (in some cases, higher than what their parents are making). The program is also improving educational outcomes; inspiring neighboring school districts to adopt and scale the model.

American Factory illuminates the deep divide that exists within our own country between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Bridging this gap is not the responsibility or capability of any single sector; we all have a role to play. Having said that, employers are uniquely positioned to step in and restore the social contract between Business and frontline employees. We invite you to take the first step by joining a community of employers who are trying to do just this – explore our site to learn more and consider participating in our upcoming California Rewire Lab to jump start your Opportunity Employment journey.