One of the most daunting challenges affecting manufacturers, from giant multinational corporations to the small job shops, is the inability to attract, engage and retain talented employees.
Embracing a more active employee recruitment strategy is essential to tackling this problem, which can stunt a company’s growth.
First, a look at the root of this problematic workforce issue.
Manufacturers during the Great Recession often treated employees as disposable cogs. They laid off workers and kept only the most senior employees because of union contracts or desire to retain their experience. Now, the older employees they kept are retiring in droves and there are limited options when it comes to replacing them.
Many manufacturers mistakenly believed that a flood of talent would always be there and that there would be prospective employees willing to walk in the door at any time and take on any job under any circumstance.
Talent searches had been all about weeding out potential employees. It led to a very exclusionary process because those seeking jobs always outnumbered available positions. Due the surplus of workers, manufacturers – and employers as a whole, for that matter – continued to believe that finding talent was as easy as hanging a “help wanted” sign on the door.
Now, due to a demographic shift, there are 10 million fewer people in the workforce when comparing the Baby Boom Generation and Generation X.
More than 75 million people have comprised the Baby Boom Generation, with about 65 million making up Generation X. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, slightly outnumber Baby Boomers, so there is potentially an adequate number of people to eventually fill more open jobs as time goes by and, at some point, job seekers will outnumber jobs again.
But for now, employers are posting jobs that generate few, if any, qualified applicants due the gap between jobs and available applicants.
Compounding matters is that for decades young people have been told that they need to go to college, reinforcing the sentiment that it’s better to work smart than to work hard. They listened, although many dropped out of college only to see fast food restaurants, retail stores and call centers as their only work options.
Another problem plaguing manufacturers is a lingering and outdated image that has left the industry out of favor with a young generation of potential new employees.
So, what can a company do when it places a perfectly good ad for a job that pays well and provides good benefits, but nobody applies for the position?
First, we work to identify and create a persona of the manufacturing worker. That’s easy because of the massive number of manufacturing employees who can be interviewed about their lifestyles. What are they doing on nights, weekends and holidays? Once that is determined, companies can advertise to similar types of people in the places where they spend their time.
We can market opportunities in employment the same way that Kellogg’s sells cornflakes, Nike sells tennis shoes and Nokia sells us cell phones.
Setting a company apart from its competitors also is vitally important and can be achieved by creating emotional anchors for employees, separate from pay and benefits. You don’t have to be the highest-paying employer. In fact, you don’t want to be the highest-paying employer. That just sets you up in the never-ending upward spiral of companies stealing employees from each other. If you are winning people with money, they will also leave for money.
Instead, focus on benefits the organization can dole out at little or no cost, such as providing easy access to childcare.
Ongoing opportunities for on-the-job learning is also important, especially for Gen Xers and Millennials, who start leaving jobs when they stop learning.
Unfortunately, employees in a manufacturing environment frequently learn their jobs quickly and then settle into an often-mundane routine.
A way to combat this is by creating subject matter experts inside a plant, where employees on the factory floor can be trained to become knowledgeable on certain topics, such as lean manufacturing, root-cause analysis, analytical problem solving, conflict resolution or any of dozens of other technical areas of expertise that are important to manufacturers.
Under the model, employees are charged with training themselves through free online resources and then they teach that skill to their manager or supervisor to develop and prove their command of a certain subject. What’s fascinating about this model is that it can be done at no cost and with no additional work for supervisors and human resources personnel. It’s an individualized development plan for a given subject. The employee feels more confident and valued within the organization, so they don’t leave for another job.
In searching for employees, avoid job fairs at all cost. It’s almost impossible to differentiate yourself. Shift your recruitment efforts to non-traditional pools of candidates, such as at-risk high school classrooms. At-risk students are, more often than not, not bad kids who come from bad families. They may simply like working with their hands and not fit the college-prep mode. Sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture on Shakespeare or working through a calculus problem and spitting it back out in a test just doesn’t work for them, but they may enjoy repairing small engines, a skill that could benefit them in a manufacturing environment.
Manufacturers also should market themselves on college campuses, since more than half of incoming freshmen never graduate. They still end up burdened with student loans but have no degree to fall back on or way to earn a decent living. Once they realize that college isn’t for them, you want to be there at that moment with an option.
It’s also important to identify life changes that make potential job prospects seek full-time employment, potentially in a manufacturing environment. Our surveys found that having a child is the number-one reason people shift from a part-time job to a full-time position with good pay and benefits. As such, manufacturers need to create relationships with the hospitals and place ads right in the maternity wards where young parents are pacing the hallways, worried about how they are going to care for their children.
If we can anticipate the life event that makes people seek out a manufacturing job, we can put the answer right in front of them.
Chris Czarnik is CEO of Career Search Group in Appleton and is a strategic partner of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is author of “Winning the War for Talent.”