By Mike Schmidt, AEM Member Communications Manager & Newsletter Editor

Skilled WorkerThe scarcity of skilled workers is one of the greatest challenges facing the manufacturing industry today, and addressing it is a task not easily accomplished.

According to a 2016 report by the Conference Board, a leading global economic resource organization, retiring Baby Boomers are leaving their jobs faster than young workers can replace them, particularly in manufacturing and the skilled trades. It’s problem of ever-growing significance, its effects are being felt industry wide, and companies are struggling to determine exactly why connecting with younger generations entering the workforce and inspiring them to embark on a career in manufacturing is so difficult.

“We’ve lost a lot of respect for our makers,” said Jeremy Bout, producer and host, Edge Factor, a show that employs media to tell stories of innovative manufacturing teams working together to design and build products that impact lives. “And yet, makers are at the heart of the economy, and manufacturing is really the backbone of who we are as a country.”

Looking Inward

Manufacturers have a vested interest in attracting, developing and employing talented individuals to help ensure the future of the industry. However, according to Bout, companies need to rethink their approach toward employee recruitment and retention. Furthermore, they need to be willing to ask themselves tough questions about their culture and how it is potentially being perceived by the workforce of tomorrow.

According to the Conference Board report, as the U.S. labor market continues to tighten over time, companies will need to strongly consider adopting certain measures – including, but not limited to, higher pay and more comprehensive on-the-job training for new employees – to help drum up interest and enthusiasm among the workforce of tomorrow. Doing so will allow manufacturers to obtain the respect of young people by ensuring them that choosing a career in manufacturing is a viable first step toward long-term professional success.

More than anything else, however, manufacturers must put in the necessary time and effort to communicate to potential employees and make them understand where they would fit into the company’s organizational picture. Convincing young people to think of the manufacturing industry as a critical step toward building a career, as opposed to merely a way to obtain a job and making a living for the time being, would go a long way toward addressing the skilled worker shortage.

“Any company, if it’s a successful company that wants to grow, knows it’s not about running a machine or a backhoe,” Bout said. “It’s ultimately about many, many different types of careers.”

Tell a Story

Effectively communicating a company’s story and expressing a desire for potential employees to become part of it is critical to both establishing and maintaining relevance with the workforce of tomorrow.

“Stories are powerful,” said Bout. “Help them understand that what they are doing matters and why they are doing it.”

Providing the necessary context to allow for qualified workers to visualize a pathway to success in the manufacturing industry, and communicating the context in ways that are easy for them to understand, are key to inspiring, attracting and ultimately retaining them.

Get Connected

Companies cannot reasonably expect to make significant headway in addressing the skilled worker shortage if they do not take the time to identify both the challenges and opportunities facing the communities in which their businesses are based. Even more than that, they need to partner with other leaders in the area to help deal with the challenges and leverage the opportunities, said Bout.

“I think for a company that’s really going to make an impact, they have to get involved,” he continued. “They have to be the leader in their community.”

Bout advocated working with local career and technical education (CTE) instructors and collaborating with area organizations that are dedicated to the advancement of manufacturing. In addition, he stressed the importance of working with area young people as well.

“The biggest thing I’m hearing across industries is ‘Can you please help us with soft skills?’” he said. “Showing up on time. Respect. Entitlement. All of these things (this next generation) is struggling with.”

Taking Ownership of the Problem

The importance of companies, business leaders, educators and other key stakeholders working together to face the challenges set forth by the skilled worker shortage and being committed to addressing them cannot be overstated.

“A lot of people say, ‘This is not my problem,’” said Bout. “It’s going to become your problem. You cannot expect someone else to solve the workforce development challenge. The skills gap we’re hearing about? That’s not someone else’s problem. You are part of the solution, and (you need to) get involved.”

The host and producer of Edge Factor offered some best practices companies can adopt to help them connect with the workforce of tomorrow.

  • Create a culture of “Why?” in your organization – Young people have a desire to know how they fit into an organization’s plans in the long term, and those companies most adept at encouraging them to ask questions – particularly the question “Why?” – will be able to seamlessly fit qualified workers into their respective “stories.”

  • Embrace failure – Every organizational entity fails from time to time. However, what happens after failure occurs is a competitive differentiator. Companies unwilling to embrace failure, learn from it and move on will suffer great consequences and be doomed to repeat the same failures time and again.

  • Be a bridge – Those organizations willing to commit themselves to playing a role in the lives of young people can “bridge” the skills gap by teaching them what they need to know to become successful workers in the manufacturing industry.

Manufacturing will continue to evolve with time, and the needs of the companies in the industry will change with it. As a result, it is critical for organizations to be able to connect with the workforce of tomorrow, inspire them to strongly consider a career as a skilled worker and – perhaps most importantly – develop them into qualified employees.

“When (companies) say they need people to come through their doors, they don’t just mean warm bodies,” said Bout. “They need good people who can change with the significant things that are shifting (in the industry).”

This article is part of the AEM Thinking Forward Series on Workforce. Its contents were adapted from a CONEXPO-CON/AGG Tech Talk, part of the show’s new 75,000-square foot Tech Experience featuring future-looking innovations that shape manufacturing.