February 15, 2014 / productivity, skills gap, training
At this point, most industrial metal-cutting executives are aware that the manufacturing industry is facing a tremendous workforce challenge. A widening skills gap is threatening U.S. businesses at large, and, according to Forbes, even the best firms are feeling the effects.
For manufacturers, the issue is two-fold. First, skilled production workers are one of the largest workforce segments facing retirement in the near future, which will have an impact on the number of experienced workers on the shop floor. In fact, recent reports say the mass “boomer exodus” has already begun.
Meanwhile, the current talent pool isn’t what is should be. Streamlined production lines and more process automation have changed the nature of manufacturing work, and the incoming generation of workers lacks the skills and technical knowledge required. What’s worse is that most young workers aren’t interested in working anywhere near a production line.
All of this is especially disheartening at a time when many companies are trying to bring manufacturing back to the United States. Industry associations like the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and major players like GE are attempting to get ahead of the problem by working closely with universities and government bodies to provide the necessary training and education to encourage students to pursue careers in manufacturing. And while these types of initiatives are certainly encouraging—and necessary—what can manufacturers do right now to help close the skills gap within their own operations?
For many companies, managing the skills gap will require changing the way they train and maintain talent, whether that means beefing up training programs or rethinking their employment strategies. This will mean different things for different companies, but here are a few of the talent strategies being used by some forward-thinking manufacturers:
- Develop existing employees. A recent article from Modern Machine Shop argues that your current employees are likely your best means of developing new skills. Just like existing customers are often the greatest source of new business, the underdeveloped potential of existing employees could be your greatest source of new talent. Huntington Ingalls Industries, a shipbuilder featured here in IndustryWeek, has found that investing in leadership training has made a huge impact within their operations. Specifically, the manufacturer has focused on leadership training of foremen in particular, which has made it easier to get the rest of the line workers on board. As a result, the company has been able to maintain its quality goals, even with a fairly inexperienced staff.
- Consider new employment options. In the war for new talent, a lot major corporations have started to offer flexible work arrangements—an option that doesn’t quite fit with most manufacturing jobs. Or does it? This report from McKinsey & Company suggests that one way for manufacturers to deal with the loss of skills and institutionalized knowledge of retired workers is to offer them part-time employment options. According to the report, this is a common strategy used by Toyota Motor in Japan, which “aggressively recruits” its retired employees for half-time roles at the company and its affiliates.
- Leverage multigenerational strengths. According to Modern Metals, by 2020, companies will be challenged with balancing five generations in the workplace—a task that, at face value, appears to be a human resources nightmare. However, MM suggests that when managed correctly, a multigenerational workforce can actually be an asset. For example, as this white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology explains, while younger, less experienced workers may lack industry knowledge, they are typically more technology savvy and more willing to embrace new techniques. Seasoned workers, on the other hand, may be resistant to both change and technological improvements; however, they typically have a vast amount of experience and loyalty and may be able to mentor new employees. When leveraged appropriately, companies can use this diversity as an opportunity to improve operations and create new and innovative solutions to traditional problems.
The skills gap is a daunting issue for sure, and there is no “silver bullet” solution. However, manufacturers that fail to tackle this challenge now will find themselves facing bigger problems in the future. The next generation of manufacturing may offer a new set of talent challenges, but as proactive companies are finding, it also presents a new set of opportunities.