Attracting and retaining a 21st century skilled workforce

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Manufacturing companies have not done enough to dispel the bygone image of being dull, dirty and dead-end workplaces that routinely dispose of its employees in favor of cheaper foreign labor. Some companies still are triple Ds, but they wouldn't be attractive to bright, young people anyway. Most of the large and ambitious manufacturing companies are working to promote a modern image of themselves to the public. But that image doesn't trickle down to the majority of unknown manufacturing companies that badly need a replacement workforce to support them. 

Too many small and middle market manufacturers are not making themselves attractive to the emerging 21st century workforce because they are lagging behind in integrating new technologies featured in the trade literature, taught in schools and spotlighted in larger customers. Too many cautious manufacturers are not investing in the newest digital machinery or embracing new methods that are attractive to the new generation of workers. No young person wants to work on a machine older than themselves or in the old-fashioned ways of their forefathers. 

The small and midsize manufacturing enterprises (SMEs) thus fail to attract youth because they are too risk averse. Too many SMEs are also not embracing aggressive workforce development and training programs that provide career pathways for new workers. That is because they fear losing them to other companies once they become skilled and capable employees. Good employees leave companies because of poor leadership and an uncertain direction, not for a couple of cents per hour. 

Too many complacent manufacturers are seeking to replace the 20th-century jobs that were satisfying to their retiring workers instead of seeking to engage talented young associates who are equipped with new skills, tools and technology that could make these manufacturers 30 percent more productive serving the same customers. Companies in mature industries are resisting making the uncomfortable changes of a new generation until a competitive disrupter appears and makes it a fight for survival. 

Today's Gen Xers and the Millennials want to work in places that stand for something and proactively help them prepare their future. They don't believe they should settle for anything boring or tedious without a purpose like machine tending year after year. And they want to see a career pathway with goals and rewards from the start of their employment.

It's also worth repeating that manufacturers looking for someone to blame provide no substitute for taking action internally.  Finding a complaint in "youthful attitudes" and then doubling down on outdated personal incentive practices that were so easily discarded two decades ago won't work either. Even if our schools resurrected every "shop" program that formerly existed, and did it tomorrow, it would be years before we see any significant impact or results in graduates. 

Manufacturing companies need to join with other manufacturing companies, and work together to build the skills they need today. They must collaborate with local educational institutions and public resources to bring relevant skills education into their workplaces. The urgency of the skills gap dictates doing so on a greatly accelerated timeline. 

Instead of outsourcing all education to detached schools that follow an old-fashioned model of 16 weeks of 90-minute classroom sessions twice a week, manufacturers need to bring skills training back in-house. They might need to use those out-source instructors to teach, but do it in a factory setting.  

Many modern educators have proven that two concentrated weeks of hands-on education and training should be conducted inside a factory setting. They should be conducted in all-day sessions, and the concentration can produce extraordinary skills training results. 

More advanced skills training can be supplemented with online, time-shifted, personal training modules.  Machine maintenance, process training and inspection procedures are examples of personal training modules. For some of the more specific advanced technical courses, how about Flex Time training schedules with one day a week set aside for mandatory paid training time for the associate? 

The employer argument that "if we train them, they will then leave us" is baseless. Employees who are engaged in their company and are being invested in with skills training are more loyal and productive. Associates who are recognized and challenged to do things other companies reserve for management specialists stay with the company that they know because they assume they wouldn't be trusted to do those things in another company.

The workforce skills shortage is real and costs companies big money. Overtime, defects, rework, lost orders, lost customers, hiring fees and rehiring costs all constrain growth plus cost time and money.

The permanent hiring solution takes a five- to seven-year maturation cycle if a company gets started addressing it today. Finding someone else to solve it for a company is highly unlikely. The likelihood that the same mix of skills shortage is equal for every company and that some government solution will emerge is wishful thinking. Each and every company is situation specific and must assess its own skill needs, define their skills gap and develop through education and training its own future population of skilled workforce. 

The time to act is now.

McGuire is president of MEAC.