They’re Out There — Manufacturing Skills Shortage:
Real Or Manufactured?

Dark, dank, dangerous, and declining.  Manufacturing hardly appeals with that image.  Over the past decade many have worked to change that view of the industry to well-lit, state-of-the-art, and exciting, but parents and guidance counselors still don’t promote manufacturing careers.

As baby boomers retire and new industries arise, manufacturers are facing a shortage of talent across the organization. Jobs that support middle-class lifestyles without requiring the ability to read, write, and perform basic math are long gone. Conversely, the skills required to work in manufacturing continue to multiply.

Manufacturers currently report three-to-four months average search time to fill a position, despite willingness to pay “above market.” Many complain about open positions that they simply cannot fill. How do we assuage that growing gap? The hiring process has always been error prone.  Now it has to become a strength of manufacturing organizations.

Any company that hasn’t invested resources in knowledge management, delay no more.  Whether utilizing software or Training Within Industry or both, it is important to capture expertise walking out the door.

Instead of seeking experience comparable to that retiring, which is scarce and a short-term band aid at best, search for people who can think well, communicate, and collaborate.  They may not be trained to do what we’ve always done, but many are ready to learn and help us learn as technology and process continue to change for all of us.

They’re there.  They might not look like you expect, but they’re there.  Some are autistic; some have purple hair and tongue studs.  Others are gamers and masters of Minecraft.  Still others are Liberal Arts grads who can transfer concepts from one arena to another. Some got tired of health care or investment banking.  And of course some are engineers or supply chain graduates.

But they’re not there.  They haven’t really considered manufacturing as a fun, energizing career.  They can analyze, solve problems, create concepts, see similarities and differences, but manufacturing has not been part of their picture.  Manufacturers are looking for bright, active contributors and bright, active contributors are looking for the opportunity to make a difference.  Seems like a good exchange of value, if only the two parties can look past stereotypes to see it.

First, manufacturers have to continue the PR effort to even become part of the career conversation. The recent GE television ad about a young man becoming a developer for its industrial division, much to the disappointment of his oblivious friends, is one way to voice the opportunities.  Manufacturing Day every October is just a beginning that must be surrounded by reinforced exposure to opportunities in manufacturing. Engage marketing experts to communicate what work looks like in your company.  It’s not about ping pong tables.  It’s about learning, contributing, and making a difference. And respect.

Not only must we work harder to attract them than they will to to get us to hire them, we must recognize potential when we see it.  Focus on thinking requirements of roles, not job description tasks. Open innovation takes different skillsets than did skunkworks or silos.  Collaboration, both internal and external, is a requirement in any successful manufacturer. Changes in interview techniques are mandatory.

Candidates from health care may assume redundancies that seem a waste.  Manufacturers in aerospace may think those redundancies are insufficient.  It is the responsibility of manufacturers to describe and demonstrate the business and operations of their companies. What is intuitively obvious to you may not be to others, and vice versa. Plan on balancing the fast start that a new-hire wants with the industry training that is likely needed. But make sure that is a learning opportunity for all, as most companies do some pretty stupid things that an outsider can easily see. Listen.

Don’t assume everyone under the age of 35 is tech-savvy.  Most are not.  They are tech dependent.  Don’t assume patience.  Streaming music and Amazon have set new expectations for turnaround time.  The willingness to fail safely that many demonstrate in their personal lives can be valuable to an organization that helps them understand expectations about quick learning cycles from failure. Aligning expectations is part of the package.

The manufacturing industry is facing a skills shortage.  But it’s not one that can’t be overcome.  We don’t have decades to wait for our educational system to catch up, nor can we count on automation to eliminate the need. We do need to change what we look for, how we onboard talent and develop knowledge, and in many cases the nature of the work we expect people to do.

But more than anything we manufacturers need to demonstrate collaboration and commitment to learning and change by working with each other to determine how to solve this problem together.  They’re out there.  We need to let them know we’re here, looking for smart contributors with analytical, communication and collaboration skills to change the world.

As published in AME’s Target Online