Changing Workforce / STEM Education / Career Development / Workforce Development / Workforce Diversity

Expanding and maintaining diversity in manufacturing: Ideas and best practices

Where and how a company recruits matters, and the job isn't done when new hires walk through the door

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Jennifer Scanlon, president and CEO of building materials manufacturer USG Corp., can vouch for the wealth of career opportunities available in manufacturing to skilled, hard-working, eager-to-learn individuals.

"I've had at least five careers in USG" since joining the company as a VP for supply chain management and customer relationship management in 2003, Scanlon said in Chicago this month. "Manufacturing offers a tremendous variety of career paths." Last year, she noted, 160 USG employees changed roles internally for "better, more interesting jobs, advancing their careers."

Jennifer Scanlon

Jennifer Scanlon, president and CEO, USG Corp.

That breadth of roles and career possibilities within the U.S. manufacturing industry today – whether a person wants to work with his or her hands or with data or with teams of researchers – can be a powerful selling point to young people, said Scanlon, speaking at a Women in Manufacturing event hosted by the Executives' Club of Chicago.

And it's a story that more girls and young women, as well as individuals from diverse educational, economic, and racial and ethnic backgrounds need to hear, she suggested. The U.S. manufacturing industry could face a shortfall of 2 million skilled workers by 2025, an oft-cited 2015 study from Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute found. (Further, in Plant Services' 2018 Workforce Survey, more than 70% of respondents said that finding skilled workers to fill open jobs is a top workforce challenge for their organization.) For manufacturers, increasing their ranks of individuals from groups historically underrepresented in manufacturing – women, for example, made up about 47% of the U.S. labor force in 2016 but just 29% of the U.S. manufacturing workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – can help address a critical need for talent, as well as increase the diversity of perspectives represented within the company.

"Ensuring that our industry has a diverse and talented workforce is imperative to its success," said Scanlon. "You really get great results when you have people who shine a different light on the same problem."

Diversity of perspectives and experiences can have positive implications for product and process innovation, customer relationship management, and further talent recruitment, Scanlon and individuals interviewed by Plant Services indicate. To that end, how can manufacturers and other industrial production organizations better attract and retain their next generations of leaders?

It starts in schools, according to Scanlon and Mollie Dowling, executive director of the Chicago-based, not-for-profit workforce development organization OAI Inc. "Half of our North American plants are working with local schools to speak with students about STEM careers because we know how important that is," Scanlon said at the Women in Manufacturing event. Getting in front of students early, before they make decisions about post-secondary education and what industries they might be interested in, can be a valuable strategic move when it comes to drawing young people to manufacturing, Dowling said in an interview with Plant Services earlier this year.

"One of the cool projects we've initiated is inspiring and supporting robotics teams at our local high schools," Dowling said. "We just started this two years ago and in our second year, we are now supporting 22 robotics teams at 22 high schools," largely in suburbs south of Chicago that struggle with high poverty and unemployment rates. Each team, Dowling notes, is supported by a local manufacturing company. "So they are offering mentoring to the team and sponsorship for the cost of the robot and the supplies, and they're just really excited to talk to young people about both careers at their own plant and also the industry more broadly."

At the college level (whether two-year or four-year), outreach to industry- and demographic-oriented student organizations can help companies connect with talent, says Dawn Sprague, VP of human resources at San Leandro, CA-based application software provider OSIsoft (www.osisoft.com).

"We work with SWE (Society of Women Engineers); we work with the Black Engineering and Science Student Association; we try to go to the LGBTQ engineering groups," Sprague says.

In working to attract a diverse pool of prospective talent at campus events, she notes, it's important that students be able to see themselves represented within the company. "We want to make sure that we bring people who look like the people we're trying to attract," she says. "I think the key is, for example, if we want more females, making sure that we bring more young women with us to recruiting tracks."

And when a company is hiring for a specific open role – at whatever level of the organization – having people on staff who pay attention to the makeup of the candidate pool matters, Scanlon said. "It's so easy to say to people, who did you interview, and did you interview diverse candidates?" she said. USG, Scanlon noted, has more than doubled the number of female project engineers it has hired in the past few years.

Having policies in place that recognize workers' priorities and values can be critical to both attracting and retaining talent, Sprague notes. "If you want women at your organization, you'd best have really good policies around maternity leave, paternity leave, family leave," she says. "That's important not only for the women but for men as well – it creates that environment of where they want to work."

Overall workplace culture can make or break an employee's experience on the job, and to that end, initiatives such as connecting employees with potential mentors can boost employee engagement and help equip employees with the hard and soft skills they'll need to advance within the organization, Sprague indicates. And when employees feel that their employer is vested in them and in their professional development, they may be more likely to stay. When asked what might prompt them to leave their organization in the next two years, Plant Services' workforce survey respondents ranked better pay/better benefit elsewhere as the top factor that could motivate their departure (with 44% indicating that it could), but "an opportunity elsewhere with new or more-attractive job responsibilities" (36%) and "an opportunity elsewhere with better career advancement potential" (35%) were No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. Dissatisfaction with the corporate culture (24%) came in at No. 4.

Success in creating the workforce that an organization seeks to move it forward can tie in large part to the company's respect for its workers and recognition of the contribution they want to make, Sprague suggests. "I think that one of the things (companies) pay attention to but probably don't pay attention to as much as they should is it's one thing to get these people in the door; it's another to make sure that they feel included," she says.