Masters of Manufacturing: Tom Bickes Helps Close Skills Gap for U.S. Factories

This is the latest in our “Masters of Manufacturing” series, presented in partnership with The Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Each month we share insights and ideas from innovative, growth-minded manufacturing CEOs from across the nation as they navigate this tricky time in history.

Beside general concerns about trade policy and the course of the U.S. economy, most American manufacturers these days face one huge challenge: finding and keeping enough qualified workers. So the help they get from Tom Bickes and his staffing company, EmployBridge, is more important than ever.

Atlanta-based EmployBridge deploys proprietary testing and screening tools so that its recruits fit well with each manufacturing client, fueling company growth up to three times over the industry average during EmployBridge’s 20 years in business. EmployBridge places more than 400,000 people a year and services nearly 13,000 companies, making it the largest industrial-staffing provider in the U.S. The $3.1-billion company with 450 sites across the United States also helps transportation and logistics outfits.

“Part of our job is to help manufacturers determine how they become that preferred employer and how they keep that talent now,” EmployBridge Co-Founder and CEO Bickes tells Chief Executive. “And the big challenge facing manufacturing in the future is that it’s estimated more than 2.9 million manufacturing workers will be aging out over the next 10 years – the people with the deepest skills and knowledge. So we’re making big investments in upskilling and looking around corners – that’s what manufacturing clients will need in the future.”

One investment is a new mobile app for job candidates. “We can push opportunities out via the app, and people can see the information about jobs so they can make decisions quickly,” Bickes explains. “The app picks up the speed of this process a lot.” After the fact, app users can, Uber-style, score the job assignment and employer, and EmployBridge aggregates that data to help clients’ self-evaluations.

“Let’s say applicants score your company as a 3-star,” Bickes says. “We can tell you what you need to do to become a 5-star employer and how that will reduce turnover.” In many of the manufacturing jobs that most go begging, there are three times the number of openings as candidates, he says, “so speed for our clients from application to onboarding becomes critical.”

This development followed EmployBridge’s establishment in 2017 of what it calls the Better WorkLife Academy, whose goal is to provide a wide range of free, skills-based training and apprenticeship opportunities to help people advance their careers, pay and quality of life while building a stronger workforce for employers. So far more than 22,000 people have enrolled in the online program in which EmployBridge partnered with Penn Foster, a major online educator, with course completions in 2018 doubling the level of 2017.

“People can add skill sets to their portfolio to earn higher wages in the future and be prepared for the jobs of the future so the marketplace doesn’t run away from them,” Bickes says. “It’s also a great home run for the client.”

After it was spun off from a private-equity firm in 2000 as a company with roughly $250 million in revenues, Bickes built EmployBridge on the idea of selecting, screening and qualifying candidates for industrial jobs.

Preparing Americans for manufacturing jobs had dwindled over the decades as traditional high-school “shop” classes disappeared and so did enrollment in post-secondary trade schools. “That put huge pressure on skilled and semi-skilled positions in manufacturing,” Bickes says.

Also, Bickes recalls, “The supply chain was changing so fast. And skill sets were changing at a fast pace: The jobs prevalent then wouldn’t be around tomorrow. So we wanted to create an environment that would allow [clients] to assess in a different way the skill sets that were needed now and for tomorrow.”

EmployBridge partnered with trade schools and the University of Tennessee logistics institute to create the screening tools that improved selection of candidates for manufacturers. Bickes says that EmployBridge’s “immediate need was to make sure we put a person in a spot where they could succeed, and the client got someone who would succeed. Our approach also allowed us to open doors to individuals who maybe hadn’t thought about a manufacturing career before but had the skill sets to succeed.”

Having established its value to manufacturers, EmployBridge keeps upping its game, as evidenced by the Better WorkLife Academy and the applicant app. It also is pioneering in the gamification of manufacturing jobs by harnessing virtual reality in training for forklift drivers, and in the assessment of job applicants with a new test that gauges the basic capabilities of an individual for the factory floor.

“Can they read a ruler? Use tools? Sort, inspect?” Bickes says. “That data will go into their file in our system and will be linked directly to our database.”

Bickes also is working with Penn Foster on a way to create a three- or four-month job-apprenticeship type of program for manufacturing, in contrast to the much longer tenures involved in traditional apprenticeship programs – a characteristic that frustratingly delays the usefulness of apprentices for factories that could use them today.

“We want a sort of apprenticeship that will help people meet soft-skill requirements such as reliability, attitude and work ethic, and then ask our client what kind of skill sets they need tomorrow, and get that person into some form of internal program so that they can help our client meaningfully attack the skills gap in just a few months,” Bickes says.

EmployBridge also is broadening its utility for manufacturing clients in other ways. It is placing its own managers at some sites to promote optimum performance by its hires. EmployBridge is offering more safety training and even conducting mock Occupational Safety and Health Administration audits. “It doesn’t take many injuries,” Bickes says, “before the profitability of a manufacturer or a staffing company goes up in smoke.”

To Bickes, the kinds of things that EmployBridge is doing with and for its manufacturer clients and individual workers make the company an important partner in a significant national “renaissance in manufacturing.”

“Manufacturing in the United States has become competitive on a global scale, and we’ve seen pay rates move up significantly, whereas they had been stagnant,” he says. “We’re getting some people back in the workforce. And productivity improvements through automation and processes allow companies to give those pay raises.”