Building a Thriving Manufacturing Workforce

Ed Potoczak, Director of Industry Relations, IQMS Manufacturing

Courtesy of areadevelopment.com

When asked about recruiting, hiring, and retaining skilled workers, most manufacturers across North America report that they are experiencing challenges. It is not surprising in light of recent observations by William A. Strauss, a senior economist in the Economic Research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

In his keynote at the IQMS 2017 Pinnacle User Conference, “Economic Conditions and Factors That Impact Manufacturing,” Strauss explained that labor force growth is limited to an extent by the availability of potential workers. He noted that population growth in the United States is at 0.8 percent, and the population is aging. Baby-boomers represent a bigger portion of the potential workforce, he said, compared to younger members of the population considered to be in their years of prime employment. Compounding the recruitment challenge is that many parents of high school and college students envision factories as loud, chaotic places where the focus is on manual labor and the need for education is limited — a view far more accurate in 1977 than in 2017. The results are two-fold: Students with a strong academic focus are steered toward other career paths. Meanwhile, students placed in vocational tracks often lack the core science and math skills required for modern manufacturing jobs.

Finally, the youngest entrants in the labor force, the millennials, bring a different set of priorities and expectations along with a fundamentally different relationship with technology.

Fortunately, innovative manufacturers have developed strategies for overcoming these hurdles to build skilled and effective workforces. Let’s look at best practices in recruiting, training and knowledge transfer, employee engagement, and technology adoption they have developed to build modern manufacturing teams.

Revamping Recruiting Strategies Today, attracting skilled talent extends far beyond manufacturers posting job notices to build a pipeline of people interested in their openings. Instead, it is important to generate a plan for consistent year-round public relations activities to present the company’s values, purpose in the market, support of individual employee interests, availability of ongoing training and education, modern technology, opportunities for advancement, and involvement in charitable and civic organizations.

Manufacturers also need to reach out to providers of secondary and higher education along with community development groups. This may include sponsoring robotics design teams, offering plant tours, or participating in career fairs. Additionally, events can provide a positive peek behind the curtain, whether they are organized as part of national Manufacturing Day efforts or as independent initiatives.

kids on a manufacturing tour

Another avenue is to creatively expose students in high school, technical schools, and community colleges through interactive tools such as EduFactor, a Netflix-like, cloud-based, video service developed by Edge Factor. Content features innovative designer-makers, the need for products in all aspects of life, and exciting careers in product design and production. Throughout these recruitment efforts, it important to reach out to women as well. According to 2016 data from the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), women hold fewer than 10 percent of jobs in the growing areas of advanced manufacturing, transportation, distribution, and logistics. Many companies that focus on engaging with young women in high school and college report greater success in filling important entry-level specialty and management roles.

Training for Today’s Job Demands Alongside recruiting, it is important to invest in training to help grow the pool of available skilled workers. In many cases, manufacturers can take advantage of opportunities to partner with industry, government, and educational institutions. For instance, Raise the Floor is a training program in the Cincinnati metropolitan area started by 26 women from the education, manufacturing, and nonprofit worlds. It is helping fill middle-skill manufacturing jobs as a way for women to better their financial situation. Carissa Shutzman, a co-founder of Raise the Floor and a vice president at Gateway Community College in Northern Kentucky, said the group’s founders came together because of “a perfect storm” with a high number locally of unfilled, skilled jobs in manufacturing and a high percentage of under- and unemployed women.

Another example is, 50 Strong, a subsidiary of mid-size manufacturer Precision Thermoplastic Components. It has launched the 50 Strong Foundation, which awards scholarships to those engaged in or interested in pursuing careers in manufacturing. With these scholarships, recipients can defray the cost of attending a technical, vocational or trade school to grow their manufacturing knowledge and skills.

Meanwhile, Dymotek, which was recently awarded 2016 Processor of the Year by Plastic News, demonstrates the success of combining outside education with in-house training and employee development. The company, which focuses on the demanding niche of liquid silicone rubber (LSR) molding, looks for people with the right culture and attitude — whether working at the local diner or auto shop. Then once they are hired, often as direct labor, the company educates them on LSR molding and manufacturing skills. Notably, some 24 percent of Dymotek’s full-time employees started as direct labor and then were promoted.

Engaging Employees Once employees are onboard, successful manufacturers recognize and address the different expectations of younger millennials and “Gen Edgers.” Older Gen Xers and baby-boomers remember starting careers with trivial, administrative tasks. By contrast younger employees are used to having adults, such as parents, teachers, and relatives, ask for their input on a daily basis. So they want to contribute immediately in a meaningful way. When asked about recruiting, hiring, and retaining skilled workers, most manufacturers across North America report that they are experiencing challenges.

Communication is one key to engaging younger workers. Instead of simply assigning work, it is important for direct supervisors to consistently explain how those work assignments help colleagues, impact customers, and benefit society.

Also critical is a commitment to mentoring “high-potential” employees. As new employees gain familiarity with how things get done, they should be thoughtfully challenged with meaningful responsibilities backed by guidance to provide coachable moments. Additionally, regular meetings for informal listening, feedback, and advice with seasoned employees and managers will be appreciated, and they will help minimize the risk of frustration leading to a quick exit from the company.

While focusing on the wave of new talent, manufactures should also identify growth opportunities for Gen Xers who have years with the firm. These valuable employees, who often need to support growing family commitments, want to advance and unleash their passion to help grow the company.

Importantly, integrating new employees into multi-generational teams can strengthen all workers. Exposing recent hires to the knowledge and style of experienced team members can provide them with helpful role models. At the same time, existing team members should be encouraged to leverage younger employees’ tech savvy, enthusiasm, and creativity to provide “fresh eyes” insights for the team and project.

Using Technology to Drive Retention Technology now touches most people’s daily lives — from millennials who don’t remember a time before smartphones to baby-boomers who use their mobile devices for shopping, social media, and more. These employees expect to take advantage of technology to make their jobs more efficient and effective. Manufacturers also need to reach out to providers of secondary and higher education along with community development groups.

In particular, virtually every employee has a personal smartphone, so manufacturers can benefit by allowing — even encouraging — use of these devices for online research, collaboration, and social communications. Mobile devices also enable e-mail and text communications with colleagues and supervisors outside of business hours. Additionally, businesses can incent employees to use their smartphones for positive posts on social media to build the company brand. At the same time, preparing a reasonable policy for smartphone communications will protect intellectual property and confidential information.

Investing in software to support operations in the back office and on the shop floor is increasingly critical. Well-integrated modern enterprise systems can provide ready access to valuable daily operating insights via many types of devices. Real-time data capture and analytics enable “instant” access to key information needed by the team to do their jobs whenever and wherever needed. Moreover, these systems help minimize the redundant work that frustrates all employees, empowering all team members to become more productive.

Enabling Effective Knowledge Transfer Many manufacturers face the need to accomplish a transfer of knowledge between retiring baby-boomer managers, technicians, and operators and newer employees. Contemporary enterprise software provides powerful tools to support this effort. Notably document management systems integrated with other enterprise software can be used to deliver written work instructions, photo images, and even video clips for training employees on a work task or refreshing their skills. Manufacturers can make video recordings of experienced employees explaining how they do specific work tasks. These can be captured in one- to two-hour sessions and then edited later into short, digestible segments for daily use that can be accessed via the web or mobile devices.

Additionally, manufacturers can leverage a significant amount of written and video training content provided by software vendors, equipment builders, and trade associations to their customers or association members. For example, the Precision Metalforming Association Education Foundation (PMAEF) is dedicated to the promotion and development of a skilled workforce for the metalforming industry. The PMAEF creates technical training materials for its manufacturing members to use in full-fledged apprenticeship programs or for refreshing skills.

In Sum To successfully build a sustainable, thriving workforce it is important to walk a mile in the shoes of those you seek to attract, hire, integrate, retain, and develop. By creatively applying modern recruiting and training techniques, creating meaningful work experiences, and leveraging technology to improve knowledge transfer and productivity, manufacturers will be well positioned to build an effective workforce.

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