As the global economy emerges from its worst recession in decades, the U.S. industrial sector is showing new signs of life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the auto industry, where the Big Three automakers are again hiring workers and turning profits.

But today's manufacturing sector looks very different than it did just 10 years ago.

Global competition has permanently changed the workplace. Consumers want cars and appliances meant to last and have little tolerance for overhead costs that snake their way into product prices.

Amid the rising competition, the battle to find the best workers to produce goods and manage increasingly complex manufacturing processes has never been more pitched. A recent research report indicated that as many as 10 million manufacturing jobs may emerge globally over the next few years.

At the same time, certain competencies have risen above other skills as critical to global competitiveness and success.

The Skills Supply/Demand Gap

Based on a recent analysis of Korn/Ferry's talent-development work with a subset of industrial clients, the five skills in greatest demand today in the sector are:

1. Drive for Results
2. Decision Quality
3. Integrity and Trust
4. Customer Focus
5. Ethics and Values

In short, the competencies required to run a great manufacturing operation have evolved. Employees and managers must be customer focused and capable of making fast, sound decisions.

This analysis of skills in demand begs a crucial question: Do manufacturers have the right mix of talent to grow their businesses and drive innovation?

On the basis of recent gains in productivity and exciting new product designs in the automotive sector and elsewhere, the answer seems to be more yes than no.

In the same analysis cited above, Korn/Ferry also discovered a mismatch in the supply of skills vis--vis demand.

In manufacturing, based on the analysis, the five skills in greatest supply are:

1. Ethics and Values
2. Integrity and Trust
3. Intellectual Horsepower
4. Functional/Technical Skills
5. Action-Oriented

The bad news: Based on the mix of top five skills in supply and demand, there seems be a lack of people who can drive results, make strong decisions and focus on customers -- at least in the context of what most manufacturers now want the most.

The good news: These skills can be fairly easily taught and developed from within. In addition, though they don't appear in the top five in terms of supply level, most of these competencies tend to be readily available externally or can be rather easily developed among internal workers.

How to Develop Critical Skills

How do you go about developing such competencies? In a column last month, I wrote about the need for employees and leaders to be agile learners who can readily apply past experience and lessons to solve future business challenges. While the industrial sector tends to be more process oriented, it still needs agile leaders and workers who are committed to quality.

Clearly, manufacturers today are more committed to developing their internal talent than ever before. Ten years ago, Korn/Ferry found that "hiring and staffing" was a skill in great demand among most global manufacturers. Today, that skill doesn't rank among the top five. The trend speaks volumes about the mentality of companies and their willingness to develop talent from within.

Recently, Korn/Ferry worked with a global manufacturer to identify its leaders most capable of accelerating success in achieving customer responsiveness and quality.

Having determined that the company was poised for significant growth, the board and the CEO sought our counsel to help place the right leaders in the right roles to achieve their ambitious targets.

  • Initially, we identified those leadership competencies specifically aligned with the board's objectives on the basis of the strategic imperatives each leader would need to embrace to drive growth.
  • We then selected specific assessment tools and methods to capture the presence (or absence) of these competencies.
  • We also took a clear-eyed look at what experiences and skills each executive possessed that could be leveraged in the roles needed in order for the company to make the strategic pivot from cost management to aggressive growth.

Korn/Ferry's inputs were critical to a\placing each executive in a role where he or she could realize their "highest and best purpose" in the business going forward.

Identifying essential competencies -- either in the larger context of an industry or the specific circumstances of a company's strategic priorities and competitive challenges -- is a critical step in determining whether success or failure is in the offing when leaders and their followers must deliver extraordinary results.

Bill Westwood serves as senior partner in Korn/Ferry's industrial practice. Korn/Ferry is a leadership talent development and recruitment firm with about 80 offices in 40 countries. Westwood joined Korn/Ferry in 2000 and has directed a number of large, executive-level assessment engagements for prominent clients. He also led the initial global rollout of the integration of assessment into Korn/Ferry's executive search practice. Westwood previously worked as Motorola's director of global leadership and organization development for the Communications Enterprise.

Westwood can be reached at bill.westwood@kornferry.com.

See also:

Break Leadership Barriers by Embracing 'Agile Learners'

Manufacturing Leadership Shortage Signals Need for Recruiting Changes