While smart companies of all types are investing more resources in worker engagement and development than ever, many manufacturers remain a step behind. In fact, Lisa Ryan, an employee engagement and retention expert with a background in the manufacturing and welding industries, says she still encounters manufacturers who are skeptical about the value of these worker-friendly concepts.
“In some places there is this mentality of, ‘The guys come to work, why should I thank them for doing their job?’ — but I’m seeing a slow change,” Ryan says. “It’s starting, but it’s not as fast as other industries. You can connect with people on a human level instead of just another employee ID number.”
This new approach across manufacturing is being driven by a dire labor shortage — created by the U.S. manufacturing renaissance, rapid technological advances and retiring baby boomers — that is projected to grow in the coming years. “If your company is stuck in an old, calcified way of doing business, you’re going to have a hard time finding and keeping younger workers,” Ryan says.
Failing to recruit and retain young talent could be fatal for manufacturers, who are already staring down a potential shortage of 2.4 million workers over the next decade, according to research from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. The same report found that a record 89 percent of executives agree there is already a talent shortage in the U.S. manufacturing sector, with firms struggling to find skilled labor to operate emerging technologies.
We asked a number of experts how the manufacturing sector is evolving to recruit and retain top talent. Here’s what they shared.
Changing Perceptions and Approaches
Khris Bhattan, president of RTG Solutions Group, which consults for the manufacturing sector, says one of the biggest drivers of recruitment and engagement strategy in the sector is the changing physical work environment, which in most cases has moved far beyond the stereotype of the gloomy factory floor.
“Manufacturers have become very aware of this negative stigma and have made significant investments in the manufacturing workspace to reverse it,” Bhattan says. “Investments in the workspace include not just the physical space but also the tools, equipment and safety protocols that are part of the workspace.”
Ryan agrees that a stigma of factory workplaces lingers with many job seekers, but she says companies can overcome it with recruiting pitches that focus more on the importance of technology in manufacturing. She says companies also need to drive home that automation and robotics are expected to create more jobs in the sector than they replace.
“On one hand, yes, it’s replacing workers,” she says. “Yet on the other hand, we’re looking for a different breed of talent and people that understand technology, like technology and want to use it in the manufacturing environment.”
Skills Gap Requires Creative Recruiting
Carlos Castelán, managing director and founder of The Navio Group, an HR/business consulting firm that works with companies to improve workplace engagement and productivity, says HR professionals in manufacturing organizations need to adjust to compete for the best and brightest.
“HR teams should think about different ways to meet the company’s goals, be it rethinking traditional employment and engaging on-demand talent solutions or adjusting pay on job offers to attract top talent in these areas,” he says. “More than ever HR plays a critical role in achieving a manufacturing company’s strategic objectives and long-term vision.”
Saint-Gobain, one of the world’s largest building materials companies and manufacturer of innovative material solutions, is taking innovative approaches to address the talent shortage, particularly when it comes to locations in rural areas. The company is looking beyond the geography of a job and touting positions in which people can design a career, “invent themselves and reshape the world,” says Valerie Gervais, the company’s senior vice president of human resources.
“We’re attracting talent in rural areas by rolling out pilot programs that take a holistic approach to people and families, because we know it’s not about making a living, it’s about making a life,” Gervais says. “In fact, we brought in an anthropologist to understand specific barriers that were impacting our ability to hire in certain areas. As an employer, we look at the whole ecosystem of the family.”
In the book “The New Collar Workforce,” Sarah Boisvert writes about touring a family-owned and -operated jewelry company in Massachusetts that implemented lean manufacturing principles designed to encourage rapid iterations to reduce waste and improve efficiency.
She encountered a worker performing low-tech repetitive tasks who was nevertheless highly engaged in his job — because the company had empowered him to solve problems. “He was clearly proud to be valued by management and trusted to think, not just do something repetitively,” she writes.
Boisvert says lean manufacturing approaches can help tremendously with employee engagement if executives truly buy in and implement them with a focus on empowering people — which doesn’t always come easy in the sector.
“Manufacturing by definition is a conservative industry, and we’re conservative partially because change is expensive,” she says. “Anytime you have to change anything on the production line, it’s expensive both in terms of equipment and training.”
Ryan says part of the resistance to empowering, engaging and developing manufacturing employees is because most workers in the sector are between the ages of 45 and 65, rather than job-hopping millennials who want more feedback and opportunities for career development.
“There’s this mentality that ‘I’m going to be wasting my time with this person because they’re going to be leaving anyway,’ ” she says. “But if they just spent those couple of minutes, if they just created those connections and helped those people, they would probably be with the organization a lot longer.”
She says that to meet the complex needs of the next generation of workers, manufacturers will have to get creative in how they approach engagement and development. “A turkey at Christmas isn’t going to cut it,” Ryan says.
We want to hear from you. What are you seeing? How are recruiting and retention changing for you? What should manufacturing companies do to compete for top talent?