Facing workforce change: Do recruitment, retention, engagement better

Manufacturing labor gaps and changing demographics demand new approaches to (and attitudes about) workforce management.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

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For Amanda Saam, the path to greater financial security and better career prospects ran through Somerset (KY) Community College’s Industrial Maintenance Technology program. Saam, 36, graduated from the program in May, and after a summer busy with both job-hunting and spending time with her 13-year-old daughter, she started a job as a maintenance technician at Hitachi in August.

“I love my job,” Saam says. “Where I’m working, it’s a pretty much clean environment, and they have excellent benefits.” Plus, she says, “They really encourage growth within the company, and everyone’s really eager to help me learn what’s going on.”

It’s not a stretch to say that Saam reflects, in a few respects, the new manufacturing workforce. For all of the talk (and hand-wringing) about shifting age demographics in manufacturing workplaces, the full picture of the evolving industrial production labor force has to do with so much more than age.

It’s about women and members of immigrant communities pursuing shop-floor jobs that offer wages that can support a family plus the promise of a variety of advancement opportunities. It’s about midcareer maintenance employees finding themselves rebranded as reliability experts and recruited to join cross-functional collaboration teams charged with ensuring the seamless implementation of new corporate initiatives. It’s about plant owners and managers having to rethink how and when they schedule shift work because prospective employees are seeking opportunities that offer greater work-life balance.

Across plants—across job functions and responsibility levels—the labor landscape seems to be shifting underfoot. And these shifts demand new perspectives on recruiting and retaining talent, because manufacturers need high-functioning, agile, collaborative teams in place to be able to better compete in today’s fast-moving industrial marketplace. How to build and develop these teams? The process starts with a better understanding of the workforce dynamics at play and a multifaceted approach to recruitment and retention.

Now hiring

Early results from Plant Services’ new workforce survey (full results will be featured in our December issue) show just how significant of a challenge recruitment is viewed as by those working in industrial production. More than seven in 10 respondents to Plant Services’ online survey said recruiting talent is a major challenge in bringing about successful workforce change. Moreover, 60% of respondents rated attracting young people to the manufacturing field as a high or very high challenge for their specific facility.

The storyline is familiar: Baby boomer retirements and ambivalence among many young people about manufacturing jobs are producing a skilled-worker shortage. But the fact that the problem is widely recognized doesn’t make it any less acute. Research and consulting firm Deloitte estimated in February that the number of U.S. manufacturing positions that will go unfilled because of a lack of skilled labor will grow to 2 million by 2025.

“With the turnover that is coming up, the plethora of opportunities is sitting there,” says Craig Hopkins, project manager at the Versailles, KY-based Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative (AMTEC), a partnership between (mostly Midwestern) community colleges and automotive suppliers and original equipment manufacturers. Even today, “We’ve got automotive companies and aerospace companies that are dying for people,” he says. Looking just at skilled maintenance labor needs, Hopkins adds, “If every community college was to produce 20 graduates right now, it would still take us three years just to backfill the current vacancies, and that’s a lot.”

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