By Whitney Andrews, General Manager of Operon Resource Management

Manufacturing companies face stiff competition for workers.

The unemployment rate in manufacturing was just 4 percent in February, lower than the national unemployment rate of 4.7 percent. This figure represents strong growth since the Great Recession. The unemployment rate in manufacturing hit 13 percent in January 2010.

With so few jobseekers on the market, employers in the manufacturing sector will need to devise creative strategies to recruit and retain employees. Employers may need to look for new solutions to many of the common barriers to employment. Several are doing just that.

For example, if employees face transportation difficulties, consider providing transit services. Michigan-based Tribar Manufacturing, a plastic fabricator, transports workers to and from its facility with the help of the Mass Transit Authority and nonprofit Community Ventures of Michigan, M Live reported last year.

If a skills gap makes it difficult to identify qualified candidates, consider apprenticeships and other training programs. Rhoads Industries, a Philadelphia-based company that does fabrication, alignment, and assembly, was recently awarded $214,686 from the state of Pennsylvania to establish pre-apprenticeship programs, Philly Voice reported. Many states offer similar grant programs to address business productivity and competitiveness by providing resources to fund training for employees.

Some employees need help in just one area—their proficiency in speaking and reading English. As our population becomes more diverse, the number of potential employees who speak English as a second language is increasing.  In fact, more than 25 million Americans say they speak English less than “very well,” according to Census Bureau data. English classes could help you employ and retain individuals in this large pool of prospective workers.

Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp., an apparel manufacturer based in New Bedford, Mass., has offered English classes to employees for well over a decade.

When the company first began to offer classes, most students were middle-aged and older Portuguese immigrants, says Anthony Sapienza, president of the Joseph Abboud Manufacturing Corp. In the past three years, the composition of the workforce has shifted toward younger, Spanish-speaking immigrants. Students come in with varying levels of English proficiency.

The classes are helpful in myriad ways. “It’s beneficial from a morale point of view,” says Sapienza. “I think people like the fact that the company is willing to make this investment in their language skills.”

Plus, when workers improve their ability to speak and read English, they are more productive. “We certainly find it easier to communicate with our employees and motivate them to be better workers,” says Sapienza.
He finds that workers who attend the company-sponsored English classes particularly improve their communication with supervisors and coworkers. Everyone saves time when there’s no need for a translator.

“There are a number of things that we have to do: safety meetings, production meetings, quality meetings, all of which an employee needs to hear and understand,” he says. When employees can understand English and ask questions, these processes go better.

Sometimes these programs are partially funded through workforce improvement training grants by the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Check with your state and local government bodies to see what resources exist in your state.

Natalia Xiomara-Chieffo is the director of Spanish on the Green, a firm that provides Spanish and English instruction to individuals and businesses. In her work with private sector and governmental businesses, she’s found that when front-line or back-office employees bolster their English language skills, they can increase their workload.

She works with managers to detail a typical day’s work, then puts it into language and visuals the employee can understand. Often she explains the tasks in Spanish and then takes it back to English so that the employees can truly grasp what they are being asked to do.

To increase productivity even further, she says managers should consider taking some language classes, too. “It would be great if management could get just a basic understanding of Spanish,” she says.

My company, Operon Resource Management, provides contingent labor for medical device manufacturers. All of our clients have proficiency-in-English requirements for all workers. This ensures safety and quality procedures are understood and upheld.

However, there are some manufacturers that tap into the non-English speaking labor force because they are desperate for workers.

In doing the research for this article we asked a few such companies in the southern border states to share insights on how they address the language barrier. Many were unwilling to share any information in fear of bringing visibility to their company in a political climate that is not tolerant to immigrant populations.

It puts manufacturers in a tough spot—they need people who speak English yet the market of available workers is so tight that they can’t find them.

Integrating English language classes into the on-boarding and workforce development processes or developing language neutral production environments (e.g. more computer-graphic orientations) would be worth the investment.

How to Break into an Untapped Workforce, Industry TodayWhitney Andrews is the General Manager of Operon Resource Management, a provider of outsourced on-boarding manufacturing labor services for medical product companies located in Lowell, MA. Andrews previously served as the Quality Manager for the company; she led and shepherded Operon through its Quality Management Systems Development and subsequent ISO 13485 registration. Operon enjoys the distinction of being the only ISO 13485 registered staffing company.

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