Hiring For The Next Generation: Plotting Your Path to A Scalable Manufacturing Workforce

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There’s no doubt about it: Hiring in manufacturing is harder than it’s ever been.

As we speak, many job shops, contract manufacturers, and product manufacturers are waging a hiring war on all fronts.

Faced with an aging workforce, many manufacturers are fighting an uphill battle with manufacturing’s next generation: Identifying, acquiring, and retaining new talent has become increasingly complicated amidst a pervasive public perception that paints careers in manufacturing as dull and low-paying – not to mention volatile.   

Manufacturing’s negative image among young people and their parents – many of whom vividly remember the mass shutterings of manufacturing plants in the 1970s and 80s – has led to a new type of job shortage.

Not one defined by a dearth of available jobs, but instead one that’s defined by a lack of general interest; a lack of general knowledge; and a lack of general education about manufacturing’s key career advantages.

“[A recent study] by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte consistently reveals that while Americans consider manufacturing among one of the most important domestic industries for maintaining a strong national economy, they rank it low as a career choice for themselves. Moreover, only 37 percent of respondents in the 2015 study indicated they would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.” – The Manufacturing Institute

From STEM to Success: Replanting the Seed of Manufacturing Education

Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap

Over the past 40 years, both the U.S. educational system and the manufacturing sector have consistently devalued --- and even removed access to – many of the core vocational, technical, and apprenticeship programs necessary to nurture manufacturing's core comeptencies in young people.

"It was a prudent and logical decision at the time it was made, but now that manufacturing has rebounded, those programs to train individuals to enter those careers simply aren’t there anymore,” said Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute, in a GE Reports interview.

And it doesn’t help that manufacturing has become increasingly automated.

Not because automated manufacturing processes are reducing the amount of available jobs within the manufacturing sector, but more accurately because automated manufacturing processes require more detailed and protracted professional training.

Much of which a majority of high school students – and at times, even students pursuing technical degrees – aren’t adequately exposed to, hindering their transition from classroom to shop floor.

Related: Learn More About the Manufacturing Skills Gap

But it’s not all bad.

There’s a renaissance happening.

Regardless of its cause, a growing majority of educational institutions and savvy contract manufacturers are realizing that the manufacturing skills gap is very real. Across America, educators and manufacturers alike are taking methodical first steps to make sure the skills gap is drastically reduced through rigorous STEM programs and in-house manufacturing training.

For both hard and soft skills. 

Increasingly, more and more manufacturers are looking for employees that can both communicate effectively and operate their machines effectively. Nurtured alongside technical skills in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines, soft skills can not only help manufacturing job candidates stand out to potential employers, but also help job shops and contract manufacturers build the foundation of a scalable workforce. 

Teaching Manufacturing's Next Generation

A complete approach to manufacturing education, one where students are adequately equipped with all the tools – both emotional and technological – they need to be successful in manufacturing is essential to closing the skills gap.

To fully realize a future where STEM students obtain and retain careers in STEM related fields, educators must continue to adequately nurture pre-existing interest for manufacturing in students, while manufacturers must make STEM related career paths open and accessible to graduating students -- and remember that soft skills bring value, too. 

Modifying Methodologies: The Manufacturing Hiring Process is Changing

In today’s market, no longer can manufacturers rely on the “tried and true” methods of employee acquisition from years past. Instead, manufacturers must too evolve with the times and employ modern methods of talent acquisition.

Commonly suggested that manufacturers work with their communities and local schools to foster an ecosystem that nurtures manufacturing within the next generation, development of tomorrow's manufacturers is not relegated to just the classroom or the shop floor. Instead, it will require a combination of both educational methodologies to fully realize manufacturing’s future.

But the best place to start readying for change is in your own shop. By developing a rigorous culture of continuous improvement and methodical education in-house, manufacturers are taking both the preemptive first steps of effective and widespread change, and working the kinks out of their methodologies without risk of confusing or driving away new hires.

Effectively crafting a training and mentoring strategy that engages both current and potential employees doesn’t take as long as you might think.

3 Ways to Manufacture A Scalable Workforce

Setting Up Shop: Which Skills Are Vital to Your Business?

In a recent study by Accenture, it was found that soft skills, such as written and verbal communication, are growing in demand among manufacturers. In fact, some manufacturers surveyed said they are beginning to value soft skills more than hard skills, when it comes to the next generation of manufacturers -- because soft skills are much harder to train.

Manufacturing Soft Skills


Takeaway: Identify the soft-skills required to fulfill the needs of YOUR shop. The prerequisites you require of your employees are unique to your business and management style.

Mind The (Skills) Gap: Pinpoint Your Areas of Need

Where will you need help in your shop 6 months from now? A year? Two years?

Successful hiring and talent acquisition strategies don’t wait until the last moment to dip into the hiring pool. Instead, they prospect well in advance.They identify areas of need and methodically map out a procedure and hiring process that is scalable and sustainable.

Before you begin the hiring process, assess and analyze the following: 

  • What skill sets does your current workforce employ on a daily basis? Is there a gap in soft skills, like effective communication or problem solving? Or in technical skills, like machine operation?
  • What knowledge gaps exist in your current workforce? Are there areas where increased or enhanced training can increase employee production, saving time and money?
  • Is there a need for new processes that can’t be filled by your current workforce? Does that need require increased training of your current workforce or the hiring of new employees?
  • Accounting for those employees who are set to retire in any give year, what is the quantifiable number of employees you will need to add to your workforce in the coming months? What training will they need in order to catch up to your current production needs? Who will train them?

To be successful and maintain your competitive advantage throughout the global manufacturing marketplace, these questions must be answered. Succinct analyzation of the aptitude and educational needs of your current workforce is an essential step toward workforce sustainability.

Takeaway: Identify the positions of need and start the hiring process now. Not later.

On-The-Job Training: Fabricate Strategic Workflows

Manufacturing Workflow Manufacturing Jobs

Once you've assessed your needs, crafting a set of concrete workflows for both current and potential employees will not only increase production and allow for more efficient skills-analyzation in the future, but it will also streamline any necessary training, either of your current workforce or your potential employees.

By developing succinct workflows, you remove distracting variables from the training equation, making trainees more effectively focused on the tasks at hand -- and increasing productivity at a much higher rate, 

What's more, offering on-the-job training, instead of expecting employees to exhibit expert knowledge the moment they walk through your shop doors, offers flexibility for your workforce, building a sense of trust between coworkers and management.

Related: What is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act?

The confidence and camaraderie born out of this training methodology is often intangible in the short term, but often exceedingly valuable in the long term.

And it’s proven to work.

Jon Baklund, owner and founder of Baklund R&D, a world class tool & die shop, puts it this way in a recent MakerCast podcast:

“I do a business 101 class once a month, where I tell [my guys] the state of the business, and then we have guys get up and teach new things. We’re like a little technical college. We promote lots of training, and our guys are constantly cross-training. [They] can run pretty much every machine in the shop. And if they can’t do it proficiently right now, they’re in the process of learning ... We are very progressive in the sense of how we use technology.”

Takeaway: Like Jon, craft a strategic workflow that incentivizes employees to not only stay with the company and train each other in the latest manufacturing trends and processes, but to also attract and train the next generation of employees. Invest in your workforce.

Related: Baklund R&D Magnifies National Presence.

Manufacturing Apprenticeships: Molding Your Shop's Future

For decades, apprenticeships and manufacturing went hand in hand. Both large and small suppliers of custom manufactured parts invested in robust training programs for their workforce.

And saw big results.

Manufacturing Apprenticeship Manufacturers Apprenticeship

But somewhere along the way, perhaps due to mergers, economic recessions, or relative loss of interest in the manufacturing sector as a career path, apprenticeship programs fell by the wayside for all but a few custom parts manufacturers across the United States.

Today, appreticeships still exist, just in far fewer numbers. However, in a dramatic paradigm shift, interest in apprenticeships among young people is quickly growing. 

Becoming attractive incentives, the next generation of potential manufacturers is seeking out employers that offer an earn-while-you-train environment, one where they can study the tactile forms of the manufacturing trade, and still have the direct opportunity to secure a full-time position afterward.

If performed correctly, apprenticeships aid both the employer and the employee:

“Apprenticeship proponents talk about the ability to train employees to their machines and processes, without having to train out bad habits that may have been learned elsewhere. What’s more, apprentices reap the benefits of classroom education while spending hours working on the actual machines they are learning about.” -- Chris Kaiser, President and CEO BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling Inc in the SME article, “Focus on the Workforce: You're Hired--Apprenticeships Can Reinvigorate Workforce

Takeaway: Apprenticeship programs are very much like driver’s ed courses: they put students in the driver’s seat of manufacturing processes, but in a safe and secure environment, one that engenders focused learning and positive feedback.

Apprenticeships create robust educational ecosystems that only grow stronger with time.

Manufacturers of Custom Parts: Now, It’s Your Turn

With more than 60% of respondents to a recent survey saying that access to a competent workforce is a continuous issue facing manufacturers today, understanding the how and why of modern workforce management and acquisition can give you a decisive competitive advantage.

Remember, crafting your employee acquisition strategy begins in-house, with 

  • Identifying the skills necessary to meet the requirements of your shop, both functionally and culturally;
  • Identifying what, if any, skills gaps your shop currently has -- and those that may come about from retirements; and
  • Identifying efficient on-the-job training workflows for your current and potential employees

Once you've done all of that, you're well on your way to developing apprenticeship programs and partnering with leaders and institutions in your local community to build and retain a scalable manufacturing workforce. 

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