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Get An Edge In The Talent Hunt

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Human capital remains a top concern for manufacturers. Here’s what they’re doing about it.

Inflation, continued supply-chain snarls and the threat of recession may grind away at them, but U.S. manufacturing com­panies still rate recruiting and retaining workers as their most intractable problem. And it’s one that business leaders from 16 manufacturing companies participating in a roundtable discussion cosponsored by Chief Executive and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) are working to address.

“We want to bring sexy back to manufac­turing,” said Quentin Messer, CEO of MEDC, who explained that Michigan companies are “getting creative in telling their story,” as well as working with state job-development entities on training programs and cooperating with vocational educators to “create [more] lifelong learners.”

Yet, many companies continue to share common challenges. One that emerged strongly from the discussion: strong front-line supervisors. “No matter how good our benefit package is, if there’s not a connection between the shop-floor employee and their supervisor, we fall apart, and all the best-laid plans go down the tube,” said David Sunderland of Vermont-based Carris Reels, a maker of spools for industrial cable. “We want to make great supervisors: engaged, empathetic supervisors on all of our shop floors who can really con­nect with people. It hasn’t been highlighted enough what a difficult job that is; it’s the most difficult position in the entire factory.”

The root problem, Sunderland said, is that most companies promote productive facto­ry-floor workers to supervisory jobs even when they lack managerial chops, such as listening skills. “These skills need to be devel­oped in most people,” he said.

At a time when many manufacturing leaders are focused on workplace culture, that gap is particularly problematic, as front liners can sell—or sink—such efforts. “The C-Suite is saying, ‘Culture, culture, culture,’ but front-line supervisors may not be buying into it or believing it,” said Robert Thomp­son, of EnviroTech Services. “You’re saying to the troops, ‘We’re all about culture,’ but if you’re not genuine and sincere about it, [they’ll] know.”

Thompson’s fix has been to pair a capa­ble front-line worker on an improvement project with a reluctant supervisor whom he considers unlikely to cooperate. Subpar results often quickly prove his hunch. “Yes, it’s risky,” Thompson said. “But which is more detrimental: having the company not growing and people potentially sabotaging things, or parting ways and getting someone willing to work and move, who has a flexible mindset? I’d much rather cut my losses now than have someone run me down.”

Service Wire opted to develop the concept of a “lead role” that calls for certain competen­cies in its floor supervisors, said Shane Berry, director of human resources for the wire and cable maker based in Culloden, West Virginia. “We focus a whole lot on that role to make sure we’re setting ourselves up to be successful. It gives us a platform to assess that individual’s skill set so we don’t promote them or put them in a position where they won’t be successful.”

Purpose as an Edge

The need to attract next-generation workers was another challenge cited by participants, who noted that millennials look for more than simply a paycheck from employers and have plenty of opportunities in today’s job market. “If you peel away the layers of the onion, the purpose of an organization is to improve the quality of life of the employee,” said William Hindle, CEO of HindlePower. “If you can convince the workforce that is truly your purpose, you find you’ll draw great talent to the company. You have to draw them out of other organizations one at a time.”

HindlePower also offers a strong employee-recognition program and no time clocks or even attendance policies. “But we get 97 percent to 100 percent attendance every day,” Hindle said. “And everyone has the purpose to succeed.”

Adaptability is also key. Post-pandemic, companies like die-casting equipment producer BuhlerPrince are coping with three classes of workers—all remote, hybrid and fully on-site—at its Holland, Michigan, headquarters and trying to be equitable in how they’re treated. “You have to offer some kind of balanced understanding that they’re in different dynamics,” explained CEO Steve Jacobson, who recently returned to the top job after a five-year absence from the company. “So you need to listen better. That’s why we have a quarterly meeting with a mixed group of employees who are open and transparent.”

CEOs must go beyond merely entertaining such conversations, Jacobson added. “People are willing to offer ideas,” he said. “Some are transparent no-go’s, some are long-term, but some are quick wins. So you have to take action or individuals go back to the plant and say, ‘Nothing changes.’ You have to be willing to make some changes. If not, don’t have the conversation to begin with.”

All of these concerns are supercharged in an era when millennials are taking on more key roles as boomers age out of manufacturing leadership and the factory workforce in general. Masaba owner and CEO Jerad Higman summarized a frustration shared by many at the roundtable when he reported that millennials often “don’t even show up for a job interview.” 

“I question millennials and their commitment to work,” said Higman, who noted his company, a maker of conveyor and material-handling products, adapted its workweek to changing employee expectations. “We’ve gone to a four-day work week, and kept Friday for overtime, but people don’t want to work overtime. I have to keep lowering the bar to get them on board, but that’s not my belief. We need to keep the bar up [high] with quality land commitment and have the right people on the team.”

Tanya Steer, HR manager for Integrity Tool and Mold, reports similar issues. Working at the injection-plastic mold maker “requires a lot of hours, sometimes 50-plus a week,” she said. “But millennials don’t want to do that; they want to work 40. They’re not living to work, but working to live.” 

Integrity tries to offer programs that will appeal to those with a strong work ethic. “Some of them want to buy a house, but the housing market is insane, and they can’t afford to buy a house,” Steer said. “So, we latch on to those people and do all we can for them: recognition programs, points, gift cards, cash and more bonuses.”

Ultimately, said Hindle, manufacturers’ “organizational culture has to change for millennials, and I don’t think a lot of organizations are quick to do that.” 

“We need to make manufacturing inviting and make it clear that we need technology in our business,” he added, noting that companies haven’t done a good enough job of selling the appeal of their companies and of manufacturing in general. “A lot of people don’t think it’s a sexy industry, so we have to do a better job of showing them. We need to support our workers more and show them that manufacturing is a heck of a career path.”


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