Posted on 10/5/2016

How to develop a strong next-generation manufacturing workforce

​Ed Potoczak

With most companies facing an aging workforce, the challenge of building a robust team to carry your business forward successfully can be complex.

The Pew Research Center predicts that 10,000 baby boomers will retire each day over the next 19 years. Then, considering the fact that most management teams are baby boomers and Gen Xers with different world views from those held by younger millennials, it is hardly surprising that there can be frequent misalignments of priorities, work preferences, perspectives, and motivations. 

It’s estimated that nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed over the next 10 years, but it is expected that many of them may go unfilled due to a shortage in qualified applicants. Already, some 80 percent of manufacturers are struggling to bring new talent in the door and up through the ranks. Add a national unemployment rate of 4.9 percent and it is clear there will be more competition for skilled candidates.

So, what do managers need to do to attract, retain, develop and integrate new, younger employees?

The following are some practical best practices for accomplishing this vital goal of refreshing the skills and knowledge base of your organization.

In the pursuit of qualified candidates, build a pipeline of interest.

With national Manufacturing Day ( coming up Oct. 7, many companies are hosting visits by middle and high school students to build awareness and interest in the changes in manufacturing to dispel lingering impressions many parents have of plants from decades ago. Many are showcasing the technologies they have already adopted in engineering, production planning and daily operations in the office and out on the shop floor including simulation software, robotics, automation and enterprise software.

There are a number of community involvement initiatives to help build interest among students including classroom visits by younger workers, sponsorship of robotics teams into a growing number of competitions, funding informational content such as that offered by Edge Factor (Edge Factor is an official educational resource of MFG DAY), offering part time after-school jobs, scholarships, and internships.

Sponsor civic events in your region to identify your brand with worthwhile social causes. This is important to both current students and millennials.

Engage during the interview and on-boarding process.

Millennials want to feel valued and to see the impact of their work. According to Allison Grealis, president of Women in Manufacturing (WiM) and vice president of Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), “Everyone likes to feel that their work is meaningful and important, but data show that millennials need this reinforcement more than other workers. They want to see the final product, and how their contribution helped achieve the team’s goal.” 

With that being said, be sure to explain how the nature of the work involved with the role for the candidate and new employee serves others in your company and how your products and services benefit your customers and the ultimate consumers.

And, consider assigning a management mentor to a new-hire to provide some extra guidance on appropriate professional behavior and a listening ear related to early career questions.

Integrate new hires into a new corporate culture.

Since most company managers and executives belong to the generation x and baby boomer generations, your perspective should not be the gold standard for your expectations and workplace rules. While safety and productivity are a given, it is best to rethink how you bring new employees up to speed in your organization.

As leaders, consider this simple litmus test: ask your peers “When your supervisor says jump, what is the correct response?” I bet you will hear “How high?!?” Then, ask a new younger employee the same question. You will most likely hear “Why?” This should cause you to rethink how you integrate younger new hires.

To retain young employees, it is critical to get off to a strong start from day one. Too many manufacturers have learned this the hard way when new hires walk away after just weeks on the job. Grealis notes that 90 percent of millennials will leave a job in less than three years. “Rather than mastering a task and coasting, they are intent on tackling new challenges.” 

This is good news for manufacturers, who must continually innovate. Additionally, members of this generation feel a need to be involved, are used to flexible schedules, and want to know that their work is meaningful. 

Assign these new employees to existing cross-generational project teams in areas such as continuous improvement/kaizen, safety, program launches, community projects, and others. Of course it is prudent to have older team members and mentors stay close to the new employee for support and guidance, but get these new people involved as quickly as possible.

Finally, do not take your leadership culture and style for granted. “Millennials are certainly used to controlling their own time. The shop floor doesn’t always allow for that. But it’s not just the younger generation; it’s the management style that needs to adjust too,” observes Denise Hummel, human resources manager at Linn Products. “Finding ways to create more flexibility in the work day routine, learning new styles and methods of effective communication, and automating manufacturing to create technology jobs are of great interest to the millennial generation.”

Develop all of your human resources.

For millennials and even younger Gen Xers, stay engaged with them; ask them about their career interests then listen carefully. Don’t wait for an annual review. Many of them want to round out their knowledge and experience. Others would like to take on more leadership. Tap into the enthusiasm and creativity of these young colleagues to energize your teams and pursue innovation.

Leverage tech savvy millennials to identify, analyze, plan and implement new technologies to boost the productivity and consistency of your manufacturing and business processes – “to do more with the same or more with less”. Given that many young employees have grown up with computers, frequent software updates, and smart devices, they can be strong contributors to your efforts to automate activities in sales, engineering, supply chain, production, maintenance, and customer service. These new employees also want to be a part of a modern, successful company and can become frustrated with dealing with issues caused by manual methods, record keeping and lack of access to key information when doing their best to perform well.

To build a strong next generation manufacturing workforce, do not rest on doing what you’ve always done to find, hire, retain and develop new skilled employees. Success will come from your ability to be strategic, intentional, and flexible. 

About the Author

​Ed Potoczak | IQMS Manufacturing ERP and MES

Ed Potoczak, director of industry relations at IQMS Manufacturing ERP and MES, has more than 30 years of experience in the manufacturing industry. Formerly an ERP consultant at the Oakstone Group and Plante Moran, Potoczak has also held positions as a senior systems engineer for Chrysler, technical sales leader in parts suppliers and general manager for a process equipment builder. He is certified as a human communication styles consultant.


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