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Finding And Keeping A Next-Gen Workforce

Everyone in the manufacturing space has heard about the dramatic talent gap in the industry, where companies cannot find employees with the skills necessary to help run a high-tech operation. Knowledge in automation equipment, or with CNC machines, can be a rare commodity, with most young people moving toward other industries, and manufacturing-centric education faltering or disappearing elsewhere.

Everyone in the manufacturing space has heard about the dramatic talent gap in the industry, where companies cannot find employees with the skills necessary to help run a high-tech operation. Knowledge in automation equipment, or with CNC machines, can be a rare commodity, with most young people moving toward other industries, and manufacturing-centric education faltering or disappearing elsewhere.

Joseph Lampinen, the director of Kelly Services Americas Product Group, and Gabrielle Caputo, the director of Kelly Services Commercial Product Group, have seen both extremes of this skills-deficiency story. Lampinen says that the labor situation can change from region to region, or even city to city — a certain market will be flush with CNC operators but lacking in people who understand machine vision, while another will suffer from the exact opposite shortage.

So while various reports claiming talent gaps in the hundreds of thousands may be correct, and may be relevant for many companies, who are unable to find the right talent in their areas, Lampinen and Caputo both argue that the future of hiring in this industry will rely not on passivity, or waiting for the right person to knock on the door. A proactive approach, crafted for any given individual market, will be a necessity in the years ahead.

That said, there’s a lot that companies could be doing to find, and retain, not only the kinds of employees who already have the talents necessary to keep a plant running, but also those who might be capable of those skills, given the right education.

A new labor force requires new techniques

Lampinen and Caputo say that amid any labor or talent shortage, new techniques for finding and acquiring talent — not to mention retaining it — and that there’s nothing holding back a manufacturer from starting to employ them tomorrow.

Lampinen says that one of the most critical steps a manufacturer can take is to look at job qualifications differently. Don’t just focus on what their past experiences are, or what their job titles have been — also take time to investigate what he calls the candidate’s “skills inventory.” He adds: “Let’s say they’re a software engineer that has been displaced out on the West Coast, in Silicon Valley. They have the raw talent to program, but they just need to pick up the right programming language and they can go to Detroit and program embedded software, or work in developing infotainment systems for the automakers. It’s a matter of applying the talent in different contexts.”

And on the other side of the situation, he doesn’t really believe the manufacturers who continue to claim that there isn’t any kind of talent shortage, or that they’ve been completely unaffected by it. He says, “I really wonder what types of employees they’re hiring. There are pockets of really tough competition for candidates, and there are other pockets more flush with candidates. It depends on a combination of the skill and the geography.”

But when it comes to employees who might not have all the skills built-in upon hiring, Lampinen says there’s still options for manufacturers. He says that one of the best ways to find a valuable future employee, aside from that skills inventory, is an ability for self-improvement. He says, “One of the things candidates recognize as an investment in their own career is when an employer will offer training and credentialing opportunities.”

That’s also one of the critical way to retain employees, which Lampinen and Caputo say will be increasingly difficult in the coming years. According to the Kelly Global Workforce Index — an annual survey of more than 100,000 manufacturing-centric people around the world — technical employees are eager for better work and more possibilities. The survey showed that two-thirds of engineers will be looking for new work in the coming years, regardless of whether they’re happy in their current job or not.

These people want to advance now that they know their skills are in need. 77 percent of them also believe that they’re in a good bargaining position to move from one company to another and net a better title or increased pay. It’s a “seller’s market,” and it will mean that manufacturers need not only to fight harder for the people who do good work, but also do more work to make the industry appealing to those who haven’t yet considered it.

Outreach as a necessity

Lampinen argues that manufacturing is still facing a major public perception issue, which stems from an outdated concept of what manufacturing looks like. He says, “People envision a dirty, not technologically-advanced workplace. Maybe an uncomfortable environment.” Add on top of that a certain lack of trust, considering how quickly manufacturing jobs left the U.S., and many potential candidates — even those who would possess the right skills inventory — have already crossed off manufacturing as a potential future.

Caputo says that some manufacturers are just now coming to the realization that they will need to brand not only their company, but also the industry as a whole. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.

Both acknowledge that certain fundamental aspects of manufacturing — the hours, in particular — might not be appealing to many outside the industry, especially considering that many businesses let employees work from home a portion of the time, or set their own hours. Lampinen acknowledges that if that’s a critical requirement, a given candidate simply wouldn’t be able to work in the industry.

At the same time, he says, “Manufacturing needs to be portrayed as a team environment. If you’re a production worker, you need to be part of a team, and you need to take pride in that, and seeing the team be successful. It’s just like team sports. You look for someone who is going to enjoy helping the team win.”

At the same time, Lampinen says that manufacturing needs to be more often portrayed not as an industry for churning out hundreds of identical products a day, but rather a place to “solve problems, tackle technical challenges and improve skills.” The best employees, he says, are the ones who desire that level of engagement with their work.

In certain industries, the ability to solve problems could turn around in to remarkable results. Lampinen says, “If you’re embedding the software in a medical device, or an automatic defibrillator, it’s crucial that software works perfectly. If you’re a medical device manufacturer, it is a great appeal to be able to say to a software writer, ‘Come work for us. You can write the software that’s going to save somebody’s life.’”

He says the same goes for the software in anti-lock brakes, or embedded systems to send a probe to land on Mars. Even in more “mundane” verticals, positioning the daily work as a complex problem to be solved by a team, rather than the simplistic effort of churning out widgets, would make manufacturing more appealing to a broader range of people.

Manufacturers shouldn’t also leave behind the younger generations, because it’s only a matter of years before they could become the industry’s next workforce. Lampinen says it’s critical to work collaboratively with local community colleges and tech schools — they would be more than happy to receive input from local industry so they know that they’re teaching applicable skills. If the local industry requires more CNC operators, it only makes more sense to generate them right in the area. But without that industry insight, a school might have an outdated — or regionally incorrect — curriculum, which does no good for anyone.

The younger Americans — high school and below — are also great targets for manufacturing education. Lampinen suggests that manufacturers could look into creating programs where students try to build a product, and then get to see how it’s actually made on the plant floor. That way, they get to understand the problem-solving inherent in the business, and break down their preconceptions about what the work looks like.

Lapminen argues that despite all the individual efforts, companies need to band together with the resources already available to them. He says, “Manufacturing in general, and manufacturing associations — local SME chapters and other manufacturing societies — can do a lot by improving, in their messaging, the visibility of the modern manufacturing environment. The long-term answer is that you’re going to the youngest generation that you can effectively message to. In the shorter term, it has to be a little bit more tactical and urgent.”

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