Changing Workforce / Leadership Skills / Career Development / Workforce Development / Industrial Training

Help wanted! Results of the 2017 Plant Services workforce survey: Part 1

Industry respondents are confident in their own job prospects but wonder whether their companies can draw (and keep) fresh talent.

By Thomas Wilk, editor in chief

In fall 2015, Plant Services conducted an in-depth survey of manufacturing and industrial production professionals, asking readers for their thoughts on a comprehensive set of workforce-related topics. From that survey, a portrait emerged of an industry that was quietly dividing itself into haves and have-nots based on whether organizations were (1) embracing more proactive, data-driven approaches to maintenance and reliability, and (2) investing in their own human capital.

Fast-forward to the start of 2017, and results from our follow-up survey indicate that although these familiar patters persist, a new set of concerns on the part of both managers and front-line workers is emerging:

  • Where is next-generation talent hiding?
  • Do I have to look outside the company for my own next career opportunity?
  • Will my executives do the things they say they will do?

This article presents key trends and findings from the Plant Services 2017 Workforce survey, sketching out an updated portrait of the actions and attitudes shaping our industry’s response to social, technological, and demographic change. Key questions from the initial survey were repeated in order to chart the extent to which attitudes and priorities might have changed over the past year, and an entirely new set of questions was added to pin down the types of training and certifications being extended to you and your peers.

In sum: If you’re stressed about where to find new talent, and you already have an eye out for your next job, you’re not alone.

Click here to read Part 2

Workforce challenges

To get a better understanding of our readers, we asked survey respondents some baseline questions. The vast majority of respondents fit into one of two generational categories: Boomers (49.8%) or Generation X (39.3%), with Millennial respondents increasing slightly from 2015 to 8.5% (see Figure 1). It’s worth noting that although Boomers still represent the majority of respondents, there was a significant increase in GenX participation; this was mirrored by a nearly equal decline in Boomers’ share.

Although the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that women comprise 27.6% of personnel in manufacturing, only 4.0% of our 2017 survey respondents are women. Also, respondents were nearly evenly split when indicating whether their plant’s location was urban (30.3%), rural (26.9%), or suburban (42.8%).

Finally, it’s worth noting that the number of manager-level respondents declined by 27%, whereas the front-line workers – maintenance, reliability, engineering, operations, and production – increased by 16%. This shift may reflect the ongoing wave of industry retirements, given that data from our 2017 survey so clearly indicate a general anxiety on where to find new workers. It also agrees with similar data from our 2016 PdM survey, which uncovered a significant rise in the number of positions available falling under a “reliability” heading.

When asked what they thought were the biggest challenges to successful workforce change (see Figure 2), both managers and front-line workers agreed on several points:

  • A lack of communication, direction / follow-through, and strategic effectiveness exists at the executive level
  • Effectiveness of knowledge capture/transfer initiatives is a top concern
  • The threat of plant closures or offshoring initiatives is a lower-level concern
  • Friction among co-workers based on gender or ethnic differences also is a lower-level concern

Both groups were also asked about concerns specific to their level of responsibility. Managers specifically sent up an alarm on the ability of their organizations to recruit and retain workers and to capture employee knowledge effectively. In fact, the level of managerial concern over recruitment effectiveness shot up by more than 7% over the past 18 months, as did concerns over knowledge capture and transfer.

Interestingly, managers did not rank budget concerns of any kind very high in the 2017 Workforce survey. It is also telling that managers expressed less concern this year with the quality of communication from the executive level but more concern with the effectiveness of executive strategy. These findings align with similar data collected in our 2016 PdM survey, which found that budget for more proactive MRO initiatives was increasing despite a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with PdM program effectiveness.

A look at front-line workers’ responses to this question reveals a much higher level of alarm, as a majority of respondents ranked each of the following as a top challenge:

  • Overwork due to lack of skilled workers in the field
  • Lack of access to training / career development opportunities
  • Lack of follow-through at the manager / executive level
  • Lack of direction / communication from executive level
  • Lack of communication between departments
  • Knowledge capture / transfer

Perhaps the most surprising result is the continuing lack of concern among front-line workers over the increase in automation. For all the talk of the potential threat of automation to eliminate or otherwise adversely impact jobs in manufacturing and related industries, only 12.1% of respondents identify automation as a top challenge; this data point was reinforced by a separate survey question, in which more than 75% of respondents said they were confident that their job would still exist in five years (see Figure 3).

Finally, although concern about overwork still ranks very highly with front-line workers, a lower share of respondents in 2017 indicated that they were being asked to work an excessive number of hours, or work on tasks outside of their immediate job description (see Figure 4). Instead, the number of respondents who told us that their current responsibilities include additional sites beyond their primary location increased in the past year. This data point was also reinforced by another question on the survey, in which respondents reported that a high number of new roles which lend themselves to multiplant operations had been created in their organizations over the past 12 months (i.e., remote/condition monitoring, automation, and data analytics).

Click here to read Part 2