Recruiting, Training and Retaining: How to educate the future manufacturing workforce

  • November 17, 2016
  • Infor
  • Feature

By Mark Humphlett, Sr. Director of Industry & Product Marketing, Infor

The fast pace of change creates many challenges for manufacturers, including difficulty in keeping the workforce up to date on new tactics and industry-wide emerging strategies. Multiple disruptive technologies are hitting at once, exacerbating the pressure. These technologies, especially around digitalization, offer exciting opportunities--at least for the select enterprises who are able to commit the funds and personnel.

But, new technologies need new skills. Manufacturers planning deployment of new IT strategies must also plan tactics for bringing their workforce up-to-date. The workforce component may be the biggest hurdle to modernization.

Building a workforce with the right skills has been a challenge for manufacturers for decades. As soon as hand craftsmanship gave way to assembly line automation and computer technology found its way to the shop floor, manufacturers have been dealing with diverse skill requirements. The two contrasting sides even got their own labels and stereotypes: The white collar bean-counters and the blue collar grunts. Neither group needed extensive training. Executives and engineers were the elite group with college degrees.

Vocational trade schools and on the job training programs sufficed for the masses. Manufacturing employed approximately 19.6 million people, or 30 percent of the workforce, at its peak in 1979. A strong back, ability to follow directions, and a “stay out of trouble” attitude were often the key prerequisites for hire.   

Today, there are 12.3 million manufacturing workers in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the workforce. The reason for the reduction in the workforce has been passionately debated, with blame usually being placed on manufacturers outsourcing portions or all of the process to nations with lower wages. Also, increases in productivity have led to fewer employees achieving greater results. The reduced manufacturing workforce, no matter who you want to blame, means hardships for many cities, like Detroit, that counted on the local plants for jobs and tax contributions to support the infrastructure.

The loss of jobs is certainly disconcerting, but it doesn’t tell the complete picture, or take into consideration the impact of retiring Baby Boomers. An estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age every day. It’s estimated over the next decade, nearly 3½ million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed to fill those gaps. Of those, 2 million are expected to go unfilled. Either the right-skilled workers aren’t available or they are not interested in a career in manufacturing. Or both. Without personnel to deploy new programs, manufacturers will be hard-pressed to keep up with fast-paced change.

Personnel in place already, therefore, need to adapt to changing roles. They need to be retrained and cross-trained, then trained again on updates. Just like the modern business solutions which tout agility and speed of response, workers must be flexible too. They must be willing to step out of their traditional comfort zone and engage with high tech equipment and highly advanced systems. These can range from lasers and 3D printers to robotics and equipment with Machine-Learning capabilities and embedded smart sensors that connect to internal networks as well as networks of partners and suppliers that may be continents away. And, tomorrow it will be something different.

These are exciting innovations for the worker who is open to change and values learning. For the change-resistant person, these technologies can be intimidating, frustrating, and even frightening, if the technology seems to pose a threat to job stability. This type of negativity can easily sabotage the success of a new initiative and is best to be preempted as quickly as possible.

Manufacturing personnel must be lifelong learners, excited about new opportunities, and ready to embrace new tactics for completing the task. Change agents, those who drive innovation and have the ability to propel a group toward modern advancements, are valuable people, especially in manufacturing where they can influence large teams or departments.

How can a manufacturer instill this type of thinking among existing personnel and recruit personnel with these traits? It isn’t easy, but it starts with stepping away from the specific day-to-day actions and looking at the underlying skills which are needed and why. For example, instead of recruiting a person who has skills operating a particular machine, it may be more fortuitous to seek an applicant who masters skill quickly, is self-motivated to learn advanced operations, or excels in continuous improvement. These skills are less likely to become outdated and can be transferred to several different positions within the organization as needs evolve.  

Experience in IT, especially data science, is the hot job skill today. These are the people who will be critical to digitalization and need to be high priority in recruitment efforts. Not everyone in the organization needs a college degree, though. Problem-solvers and creative thinkers aren’t only the product of high education.

To help create a bridge to new capabilities, several states offer resources in which companies can engage students in their manufacturing environment and educate them about the benefits of a viable career in the industry. For example, Georgia offers the Great Promise Partnership which includes programs adaptable to the different socioeconomics and community needs and includes programs designed to include at-risk students and help them complete their high school education while gaining real world job skills, thus gaining the ability to build successful lives. Georgia Quick Start is an internationally acclaimed program that works with new and expanding companies to offer customized workforce training free of charge. Quick Start offers the latest in training technologies customized to each company's equipment and procedures and offers their training onsite, in mobile labs or on the plant floor.

National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) also offers special programs aimed at introducing women to careers in manufacturing and ones that assist returning veterans to enter the job market and apply for jobs in manufacturing.”Apprenticeship programs also still make sense for on-the-job training of particular repetitive tasks and machine operation. The Department of Labor (DOL) recently announced funding for a new $50.5 million investment in a program called ApprenticeshipUSA,  part of a strategy to grow and diversify apprenticeships. The goal, according to Whitehouse announcements, is to create thousands of new apprenticeships in diverse industries, including advanced manufacturing and information technology.

Manufacturers seeking to expand their training programs will likely take advantage of this supportive move and nudge in the right direction from Washington DC. Manufacturers must also own the problem and be highly engaged in activities to turn around false perceptions about manufacturing jobs, reluctance to consider a career in manufacturing and recruiting new talent. As long as manufacturers recruit personnel who are lifelong learners, open to change, and excited by technology, they will be able to step up to the challenges of the new era.  

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