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Work Life Balance

UAW Workers Want Work-Life Balance. It's Exactly What the Industry Needs

Sept. 26, 2023
Enacting a more tolerable work week with better compensation could help solve some of the people problems manufacturers currently face.

The United Auto Workers strike has brought attention to work-life balance for automotive operators in a big way. And it’s high time. While many other industries have been actively addressing the issue for some time in the wake of COVID and the Great Resignation, automakers and other manufactures have lagged behind when it comes to valuing and supporting the needs of their frontline operators.

Now, they will need to catch up, and catch up fast.

Work/life balance is practically non-existent for many autoworkers.

Back in 1926, manufacturing operators were logging 100 hours a week on average. That didn’t change until the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act cut the standard work week to 44 hours a week, which later fell to 40.

While other industries have been looking at introducing even more flexibility into the work week and further relaxing the standards, expectations for the workforce haven’t budged in the automotive industry since the Great Recession of 2008 despite the fact that automakers have since fully recovered financially.

Indeed, conditions—which have historically been harsh in an industry notorious for its strict regime and overworked, underappreciated assembly line operators who often report feeling like robots— have deteriorated even more in the past few years. Today, many shop-floor operators find themselves facing forced overtime in the form of longer shifts and weekend hours so their employers can make up for lost production and depleted inventory levels triggered by the recent supply chain disruptions and labor shortages. While employees are exhausted, many need the extra pay to make ends meet as inflation continues to take a toll on household budgets.

From a bottom-line perspective, automakers have done quite well with this approach over the last few years. But most are overlooking the impact on human capital and the fact that the current model simply isn’t sustainable. It’s taking a serious toll. People are non-engaged and non-motivated, and for good reason. Often, the only thanks the operators get for their extra effort comes in the form of lip service, a pat on the back from the supervisor, and maybe a company dinner and a $50 gift card thrown in as a holiday bonus.

It's not enough, and workers and their unions are fed up. The time for the dynamic to shift is right now.

Automakers will have to start giving back, but they will get back in return.

The situation has come to a head with UAW asking for significantly more pay and less hours, leveraging the power of the strike to force the issue. Management, however, is rightly concerned about absenteeism, a problem that has escalated in unprecedented ways since the pandemic. Automakers want more flexibility to use temporary resources or redeploy full-time team members when their scheduled operators don’t show up.

But what the companies may be missing is that meeting the union’s demands and enacting a more tolerable work week with better compensation could help solve some of the people problems they currently face.

Right now, showing up late, or simply not showing up at all, is the only option employees have available to access much-needed time off for rest or taking care of other areas of their lives, such as health and wellness, childcare or other important obligations.

If, however, operators begin working more reasonable hours, they won’t have to call off just to meet the demands of life outside of work. And they’ll have more energy to be more productive when they are on the shop floor. If wages also increase, employees will be much more incentivized to put in their scheduled hours.

For companies, overtime savings will help offset increased pay. A reduction in absenteeism will also lessen the costs associated with temporary employees. Because the temps are often not skilled or trained operators, production should naturally increase when permanent employees fulfill their shifts. If those employees are making fewer mistakes, having less accidents and generally delivering a better work product as a natural result of being happier and healthier, the impact should show up in the production numbers sooner and more tangibly than many companies realize.

Today’s concessions will help set the stage for critical improved human capital management strategies going forward. 

All U.S. manufacturers, unionized or not, should take note of the automakers’ current situation. The reality is that the manufacturing industry overall faces labor shortages and an aging workforce. The new generation simply isn’t motivated by the dollar in the same way as past generations and will be looking for more from their employers than a paycheck.

While automakers may be forced into making work/life balance concessions sooner than later, all manufacturers need to think seriously about proactively investing in their people, especially those operators on the frontlines who have historically been overlooked.

Companies that create a positive workplace environment and develop employee-centric policies for engaging, rewarding and supporting people at all levels will have an edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining the talent they need to meet production and customer demands, ensuring a strategic competitive advantage going forward.

Shannon Gabriel is vice president of leadership solutions, TBM Consulting Group

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