May 30, 2019
by Marcia LaBelle
It’s no secret there exists a skilled manufacturing workforce shortage – an enormous sticking point to our industries. And now that many of the Baby Boomer generation have retired or are on the verge, this scarcity is an issue that must be addressed.
Not to diss Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, but Millennials (born 1980-1994) and Gen Z (born 1995-2012) comprise the largest demographic globally, so attention to and concentration on those generations is vital to the future of manufacturing in this country. Our existence is dependent upon an engaged, committed and talented workforce and as such, changing the archaic perception of a career in manufacturing is a priority. Those of us in the industry are well aware of manufacturing’s immersion into technology, but not so the generations we need to attract.
The integration of automation and robotics with more conventional practices are opening doors of opportunity for a younger workforce whose lives, in large part, have been influenced and shaped by technology, so the imperative is to make them aware these opportunities exist. Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are changing the face of a career in manufacturing, and yet there remains the misconception by many that manufacturing facilities are Dickensian – plants where tedious, low-paying work is performed in a hard-scrabble environment!
Here is where programs specifically geared toward high school graduates looking for a well-rounded career come into play. At NFI, we have introduced “Corridor to College,” a focused-future program that allows high school graduates to choose from among three corridors; the three paths to a future in our specific industry are Engineering/Design, Production Management and Business Management.
Programs such as this provide an opportunity for those starting on their career path to see a modern manufacturing facility first-hand and also work in several different capacities within our company, giving them a chance to identify and select their most fulfilling employment “corridor.”
Videos and facility tours are other avenues companies can take to illustrate the many opportunities a career in manufacturing holds and to help debunk misconceptions.
It is also encouraging that many high schools throughout the country are assimilating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) programs into their curriculum. The ongoing national push toward these fields of study is in harmony with the need to introduce manufacturing jobs to the next generation of workers, as all five elements of a STEAM program are essential to a career in manufacturing. In addition to skilled production workers, engineers are needed to ensure next levels of innovation and technique, while design and packaging of end products require the expertise of those with artistic backgrounds.
Bravo to the manufacturing companies with the foresight to partner with high schools and trade schools to offer apprenticeship programs. This is a forward thinking approach that more firms would be wise to get on board with sooner rather than later.
But despite technological advances, programs such as “Corridor to College,” integration of high school STEAM curricula and apprentice opportunities, the shortage of candidates looking for a career in manufacturing remains. Those of us in the industry need to take the lead in mitigating inaccurate perceptions and here is where a strong company culture enters the picture.
Company culture must be consistently present, and it starts at recruitment. Manufacturing companies should establish a cutting-edge culture where training, benefits, safety, caliber of equipment and room for advancement all come together to create an environment where individual growth and success is the hallmark. If a company genuinely fosters a culture that acknowledges and empowers individuals, word will travel.
We may as well acknowledge the elephant in the room. A job in manufacturing can be tedious. Employees working on the floor typically perform the same function day in and day out, but given the chance to cross-train, they will develop the ability to move in other directions within the company. The opportunity to perform multiple functions not only breaks the monotony of repeated action, it demonstrates the confidence management has in its workforce and provides employees a genuine sense of being part of a larger picture. And let’s be honest – cross-training is not a purely altruistic act. In these days of razor-thin financial margins, the one-person-one-job business model just doesn’t cut it, anyway.
Is there a quick fix to overcoming the challenges created by the manufacturing industry’s skills gap? No, but through multiple strategies, careers in manufacturing can be returned to their rightful place of honor. Progressive talent sourcing and recruiting strategies, apprentice and education programs, robust company cultures, and an environment that fosters growth from within are necessary to alter the outdated image of an industry whose future depends on a younger workforce.