How to adapt your manufacturing workforce


New faces, skills and ideas


American manufacturing is facing shortages — not only in supply chains, but also in labor, skills and innovative ideas. That’s left industry leaders looking for new ways to recruit, train and retain the best employees.

But it’s not easy. Job openings in manufacturing have risen sharply, and many estimate they will keep rising. “Right now, we have about 800,000 open jobs in manufacturing. It takes somewhere between 60 and 90 days to fill those jobs, and every open job you have is money out the door, because that’s downtime on your production line,” said AJ Jorgenson, Vice President of Strategic Engagement for The Manufacturing Institute.




“In manufacturing, we talk about improving tech readiness. It means having the right technology in place, but it also means having the right skills to drive the technology and derive value from it,” said Michael Monahan, Grant Thornton National Managing Principal for People and Culture. Monahan recently spoke with Jorgenson and a panel of industry innovators about strategies that can help manufacturers meet their pressing workforce needs.




Outreach that’s out of the box


To fill the vast number of open positions, manufacturers need to be creative about their outreach.





That starts with changing perceptions. Today’s advanced manufacturing doesn’t aspire to be a tech industry. It is one. The work on a current manufacturing floor would have been unimaginable in 1975. “We have really worked hard to present ourselves as a tech company, because let’s be honest: Advanced manufacturing is tech,” said Gina Radke, CEO of Galley Support Innovations Aerospace Manufacturing. “You are not taking a hammer and beating a piece of metal into submission. You are running machines based on what you put in the computer.”

Yet, many young Americans visualize manufacturing environments that are stuck in the past — dangerous low-tech shop floors filled with repetitive tasks. Manufacturers and their recruiters need to help share a more modern perception of the industry.

Recruiters also need to reach out to potential workers in new places and new ways. Foster Nation is an organization that connects former foster youth with opportunities, skills and support. Maggie Lin, the organization’s Executive Director and Co-Founder, said, “More than 50% of foster youth report zero dollars in wages earned in the first four years after leaving the foster care system at 18. A big part of that is that there isn’t a very direct pipeline to a specific industry.”

With no job direction, experience or support, this population of young adults struggles to find a way forward. But, when given the chance, they have proven to be good employees — and adept recruiters. Their case workers help ensure that they show up on time and get drug tested. And, when recruiters reach out to them with job opportunities, they tend to reward employers with loyalty. “This is a group of young skilled workers, people who are digital natives that are looking for jobs,” Lin added.

Radke observed that a similar approach has worked with former prisoners — this group also tends to reward employers with less turnover than average. Radke said they often contribute more than employers expect, and employers can reach to them through governmental programs or special job fairs sponsored by nonprofits. “You are changing their lives, and future generations. And they understand that, and that’s exciting for them. It’s exciting for us. I mean it’s absolutely been one of the best things we have done as a company,” Radke emphasized.

Jorgenson added that many working moms have left the workforce over the last 18 months. “Just last week we discussed how manufacturers are employing return shifts, to bring working moms back in. They need flexibility. How are you actively attracting these more diverse talent pools, so that they can actively attract their friends and similarly diverse talent?”

Of course, traditional outreach can also be pursued more aggressively. This could mean proactively working with veterans’ organizations, high schools, community colleges and other institutions. It also means ensuring that recruitment efforts include women and other populations that have often not been represented in the manufacturing sector.




Rethink the interview


The new mindset for recruiting should extend to hiring and onboarding. Interviewers in every industry need to be aware that they can have an unconscious similarity bias — a natural human tendency to approve of people like them. If interviewers don’t make an effort to evaluate every candidate fairly, they could accidentally put valuable candidates at a disadvantage.

Consider who is conducting your interviews. Some interview panels have had greater success by including team members as well as supervisors.

“We do group interviews,” Radke said. “It’s not just an interview with me, or with our director of operations or engineering. You interview with us plus some of your coworkers — some of the people that could be on your team. So, they get that buy in. Even if they sit in the room and never say a word, they feel like they have bought in, like this is their company and they’re a part of it. So, they don’t want to leave and go start over somewhere else.”




Build culture that builds loyalty


After manufacturers hire new employees, how can they retain them? First, manufacturers should give them the skills to thrive, and to help drive returns from the company’s investment in technology and people.

“To attract a younger generation, a big part of it is providing opportunities for learning — investing in apprenticeships or certification programs — as well as making sure that the culture of a company feels like it’s a place where they want to be,” Lin said.

To help former prisoners develop the skills they need, Radke uses a three-to-one approach where three skilled employees mentor one new employee. Once established, these new employees often bring diverse perspectives to problems and offer new solutions.

Mentoring can also be an important way to help employees learn the growing number of uniquely sophisticated technical tasks in manufacturing. This work might even require external training like a six-week certification course, an associate’s degree or even a BA. By helping employees earn these credentials, you build a culture of loyalty.

Training doesn’t have to be formal. Radke said she regularly takes people to start up competitions and tech competitions, to get them used to thinking of themselves as tech employees — and to get buy-in for change. “When they talk to a team member who stands next to them all day about how excited they are, that is awesome,” she said.

“What’s become so important in manufacturing is the need for soft skills, teamwork, problem solving, communication,” Jorgenson added. “We’re working together. We’re addressing issues as they arise. We’re innovating. Those are the type of skills that we’re really looking for when we talk about the future of the workforce.”

Panelists also found that innovative compensation strategies, such as small frequent raises rather than more substantial annual ones, made people feel better and can even turn them into promoters for your company. Dress codes should be created with retention in mind. The traditional shirt with the name above the pocket may be a source of pride, or it may create an unwelcome and unnecessary stigma.




Start with listening


A true understanding of retention begins with listening — and nothing is better at building loyalty. Talk with your employees, solicit their thoughts and hear them out.

The panel outlined five rules to help adapt the manufacturing workforce:

  1. Address the perception of manufacturing.
    Manufacturing is a high-tech industry, but most people think it’s mid-century.
  2. Reach out to new communities.
    People in the foster care system and the incarcerated can be an unexpected source of loyal employees.
  3. Extend changes beyond recruitment.
    Rethink your interview, onboarding, mentoring and training processes.
  4. Upgrade skills.
    Increasingly, your employees will need better technology training and soft skills.
  5. Attend to culture:
    Given the high cost of ineffective culture, and the cost of replacing employees, it pays to create a workplace and a community that people enjoy.




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