Manufacturing Hiring 101: Stop chasing unicorns

In this Big Picture Interview, Mollie Dowling explores how current and looming labor shortages demand more-strategic hiring, retention efforts.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Mollie Dowling is executive director of OAI Inc., a not-for-profit, Chicago-based workforce development organization that offers training and education for individuals looking to get into or advance an industrial career. OAI works with companies and community groups in more than 20 states to connect job-seekers with employers, and also is engaged in school outreach, sponsoring high school robotics teams, and helping manufacturers get in front of their next-generation workforce. Dowling spoke with Christine LaFave Grace about keys to addressing manufacturers’ hiring and retention challenges.

PS: How can manufacturers do a better job of promoting manufacturing as a viable, attractive, opportunity-rich career choice?

MD: They need to help change the perception of the industry by describing and advertising the breadth of jobs available in manufacturing. There’s a big need in production, but there’s also a great need in all aspects of the business, and (it’s vital) to help get young people to see that it’s technology, it’s business administration, it’s marketing, it’s CAD design and it’s innovation, really, and they can excel in so many different aspects of the sector.

We’re asking companies to get involved, open their doors for tours, contribute to the classroom and form the curriculum. Many schools are bringing back technical education, so bringing back machine shops and welding shops and CAD and design shops, and (companies can) help make the direct connection between what’s happening in industry and what they’re learning. We’re also asking companies to offer internships for young people, which has been a hugely successful program for us. We support an ongoing internship program and get companies to regularly host interns who are 18–24 years old. It’s funded through the public workforce system so that the companies don’t have to employ the interns or assume the risk, but the young person is paid through public dollars and can experience the industry first-hand. Many companies end up hiring the interns afterward.

PS: What do some manufacturers not understand about addressing their talent shortages?

MD: I hear a lot of complaining about the public school system and what it’s not doing. And that companies can’t find good talent. But I think if we’re going to (effect) a sea change, that they have to be willing to contribute. That’s why we are helping companies develop relationships with their local public schools through robotics team sponsorships and by offering tours. We’re also recommending they examine their own hiring practices because the reality is they have to be competitive. We are seeing companies raise their wages so they don’t experience as much turnover and churn.

PS: We hear time and again about companies’ challenges with turnover, especially on the plant floor. How is OAI dealing with that retention part of the puzzle?

MD: We’re very good at helping get people into employment, but the next frontier is to make sure that people are successful on the job. And we believe that we can be of assistance to HR departments at companies by helping people address the non-work-related issues they face.
Our program is called Retention Plus, and it’s a service that we can offer companies that provides an on-site career coach to help meet one-on-one with staff and workers to help them face personal challenges and access public and affordable resources. Childcare is a great example but also transportation issues, housing issues, legal assistance, financial coaching, professional development ... just helping people with all aspects of their life that might prevent them from showing up to work on time and being productive.

PS: You mention community colleges as a vital resource in supplying technical skills training. What would you say to hiring managers wary of replacing someone with 30 years of technical knowledge and experience with a fresh graduate?

MD: We deeply support our colleges. All manufacturers are looking to hire talent that has three years’ experience and comes with expertise, but with the unemployment rate we’re facing, that’s just not a reality. So my message is to be willing to think about expanding internal training programs to grow your own talent and consider hiring graduates of college-based training programs. Because that three years’ experience is the unicorn.

PS: What's a particularly memorable experience you've had in working with OAI?

MD: I have a story I often think about – there was a woman named Carolyn who was living in a Chicago public housing facility in Riverdale. I met her at a job fair; it was when we first started doing the manufacturing recruitment initiative. This was probably 2011, and she came to the job fair and said, "You know, I don't have any background in manufacturing, but it seems like our meeting was meant to be and that maybe this is an opportunity I should consider." And I said, "It absolutely is." She was so excited about what we're doing. I said, "Come get some training; we'll get you all the skills you need to get into the industry." So she ended up enrolling in our training program, went through about six months of classes to learn about CNC machining, and she got a job at a company in Calumet City called Kay Manufacturing. They are a premier tier-two automotive supplier; they are very high-tech. And she is still there to this day. She was able to improve the conditions of her family, and she has tagged me on LinkedIn and said, "I’m still doing great; I still have this job; thank you." Stories that like are where I’m inspired by the courage that people have to think about changing their career and trying to do better for their loved ones and their families, and who now understand the opportunity that manufacturing can present.

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