Site Readiness, Not Talent, Is Biggest Concern of Expanding Manufacturers

They worry more about site quality and infrastructure, but employee training remains paramount, Site Selectors Guild survey says.

It’s surprising to find anywhere in America a pocket of companies that don’t cite “talent” as their biggest concern, but there is one: outfits that are making decisions about where to site new industrial projects.

While 100% of the site-selection consultants polled recently by the nationwide Site Selectors Guild said that the “availability of quality talent is the single-most important consideration during office-location engagements,” only 4% of those consultants said the same thing for industrial-project engagements. The consultants are reflecting the point of view of their clients, obviously, who are concerned above all else about a lack of quality industrial sites with adequate infrastructure.

And industrial-site clients are telling their consultants that, for more capital-intensive projects such as new manufacturing plants, the right infrastructure, locations and supply chain to support the effort take precedence over talent considerations per se, primarily due to the uniquely large requirements of many new projects, the scarcity of the required resources in many locales, and also due in part to an increased reliance on new forms of automation technology. That’s what the guild said in its report for 2022, The State of Site Selection.

But talent issues remain a huge concern among companies looking for industrial sites, with 41% of guild members surveyed saying that current skill shortages are the new normal, while 17% said they would last through the end of this year, 12% through 2023, 17% for at least three years and 12% said for at least five years.

“The state of the workforce is impacting all locations and all industry sectors,”Gregg Wassmansdorf, chair of the executive board of the guild and senior managing director of global consulting at Newmark, in Toronto, told Chief Executive. “Any plan to grow and scale at an existing or new location is getting harder and harder. So we have to be using our best methodologies and best tools to ID locations that can support workforce and skill requirements.”

Wasssmansdorf said that the most problematic dimension of talent for manufacturing clients is training and reskilling. “One of the biggest challenges is providing workforce training at scale,” he said. “There are lots of excellent examples of universities and technical colleges providing [manufacturers with] customized workforce training, but it’s more difficult to do it at scale. Is that the company’s responsibility, or is it a government responsibility? It’s always been a combination.”

Reskilling employees for existing operations is increasingly important as digital technology overtakes manufacturing and the supply chain in multiple ways, he noted. “We continue to see the adoption of new technologies, automation, robotics and digitization of business functions, and that requires reskilling as people’s jobs change as they perform them.”

Reshoring of operations is a growing priority for guild members’ manufacturing clients as well. In the survey, 92% of guild members said their clients are looking at new continental or regional locations to shorten or risk-proof their supply chains, including locating facilities closer to key markets. Fully 88% of consultants reported that North American manufacturers are bringing production back to the U.S., Canada and Mexico to reduce their reliance on Asian supply chains that proved vulnerable to disruptions such as the pandemic.

“There’s a shift from globalization to continentalization, and people are relying less on a single-plant strategy in China,” Wassmansdorf said. “Supply chains need to get shorter and to reduce time and cost because some of the cheaper parts of the world historically, now have become more expensive to operate in. And Covid exposed all the risks of a tightly refined global supply chain.”

Meanwhile, a new factor has emerged in the stresses on European manufacturers from the cutoff of Russian natural gas to them because of the war in Ukraine. Even as they’re bringing production back to Europe and away from Asia, many also have begun to favor shifting output to plants in North America, some of which may already exist. At least they can count on domestic energy supplies in the United States to keep their factories humming.

Each North American country can provide Europe-based manufacturers with other advantages as well. “The U.S. market is huge, so it’s a great market-entry strategy anyway,” Wassmansdorf said. “Also, Canada has a comprehensive free-trade agreement with Europe, and the U.S. doesn’t have that. Canada also provides access to the U.S. and back to Europe. And Mexico continues to be a low-cost opportunity, with lots of free-trade agreements.”

Another thing weighing on their manufacturer clients, guild members in the survey said, is how to reckon with expanding ESG requirements and expectations. “On the industrial side, to a certain degree this is just the latest manifestation of where these companies have been headed for a long time,” Wassmansdorf said. “But now [ESG] is a rating system and an investment product.”

In that new environment, Wassmansdorf said, clients are talking with guild members about “how do we operate in the world, how do we change the way we do business in our facilities and work in our communities and in sourcing, and with our employees so we can be better actors in the world? There are real operational considerations for them, apart from the noise with other ESG factors that are out there.”


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events