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Out-of-the-Box Ideas for Addressing Workforce Shortages

Sept. 27, 2023

It’s no secret that the manufacturing industry has struggled to fill job vacancies. One reason for this is there are not enough people pursuing careers in manufacturing. According to a survey from the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, 73 percent of teens have little or no enthusiasm or are ambivalent about careers in manufacturing.

While the manufacturing industry and other stakeholders are developing Education and Workforce Development (EWD) approaches for changing perceptions about manufacturing jobs and specific skills training, local businesses also need more immediate, short-term solutions and creative approaches to fill current and upcoming positions.

The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center (MMEC) gathers creative ideas and different approaches from their Business Advisors for finding and retaining talent, as well as feedback from their visits to local manufacturers. Here is a summary of what they see and hear from manufacturers that you might be able to put to use in your company.

Broaden Your Labor Pool to Attract More Prospects

Consider focusing on both older and younger people to grow your talent pool, rather than your traditional age targets. Nearly 30 percent of people aged 65-72 are working or looking for work, and they bring with them experience and established networks. If they're already on Medicare, they may not need health care benefits. For younger employees, consider internships in partnership with local colleges to attract and test out potential full-time employees. Here are some other non-traditional approaches to consider:

  • Veterans: A few employers are working with the Department of Defense Skillbridge program to match soon-to-retire military personnel with manufacturing job opportunities in Montana.
  • Vocational Rehabilitation/Disabled Populations: A food manufacturer in a rural location is partnering with vocational rehabilitation agencies in nearby towns to identify and offer bus transportation to clients who are a good fit for production positions. A metal manufacturer is working with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) to explore how to attract neuro-divergent employees. DPHHS conducted a site visit to help the company identify workplace accommodations for neuro-divergent employees.
  • Pre-Release Populations: MMEC piloted a basic manufacturing skills course to prepare people in the men’s and women’s state prison for manufacturing jobs.
  • New Geographical Markets: A communications systems manufacturer that needed more space leased a facility in a different small town so they could draw employees from a different labor market.
  • Contract Labor: A small clothing company contracted with sewers who work from home when it needed additional production capacity, which is appealing to parents looking for part-time remote work.

Articulate that You Are Offering a Career and Not Just a Job

Show potential employees career progression potential and the pay increases that come with that progression. An attainable long-term career is more attractive than a new job with slightly higher pay. Also, keep in mind that clearly defined career paths are important to keep the employees you have. Consider implementing:

  • Attraction and retention programs: MMEC is working with several companies to implement attraction and retention programs like Smart Talent, which document career ladders for individual positions, and the specific knowledge, training, and experience needed to progress to each next step on the ladder. Companies have found the systematic approach helps retention as employees can visualize and advance toward a long-term career.
  • Apprenticeships: A dog toy company found that apprenticeships build loyalty among entry level employees. MMEC has developed a Certified Manufacturing Associate Apprenticeship (approved by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry) that it is piloting at a manufacturing company.

Create Demand By Becoming A Hub for a Specialty Skill

One of MMEC’s clients, a metals manufacturer, was challenged to recruit welders, so the company created an in-house welding academy for entry level positions. You could use this same idea, but reach out to nearby high schools or trades schools to collaborate and offer space, equipment, and/or technical expertise they may not have.

What if this works, and you end up with more students than you can hire? Isn’t that a good problem to have?

Offer Higher Wages or Other Types of Compensation

A new hire that doesn’t work out can cost thousands of dollars. Rather than start with a low wage and increase it only after employees have proven themselves, consider starting with a higher wage to attract the best candidates. Also consider creative bonuses, such as an incentive bonus for an employee who successfully recruits a new employee. Split the bonus to include payment at a new employee’s 90-day mark, which gives the referring employee incentive to make sure the new employee sticks around. Consider:

  • Wage Increases: Another client that manufactured small boats is attempting to reduce absenteeism with a new policy that ties wage increases to good attendance.
  • Retirement Contributions: Increasing retirement contributions can help encourage employees to stay long-term. For younger employees who may not recognize the value of retirement contributions, companies can consider combining the increased contributions with financial planning workshops.
  • Housing Assistance: A family farm recruiting seasonal workers provided housing to couples if both worked at the farm.

Demand Fewer Requirements for Applicants and Simplify Job Postings

If you’ve been using the same job descriptions and advertising methods for several years, it’s probably time for a fresh look to make sure your openings get the attention they deserve. Here are some common flaws:

  • Too Many Required Skills: Long lists of essential skills or specific industry experience may discourage talented candidates from applying. Prioritize the most essential ones and be prepared to train for the rest.
  • Limited Distribution: Still advertising on the same three job websites? Don’t underestimate the power of social media – 79 percent percent of job seekers use social media in their job search.
  • Too General And Boring: To stand out, postings can be fun and should reflect the culture of the company. Here’s a test – have a friend or family member read your job announcement as a potential applicant who knows nothing about your company. Would she or he be interested in the job? Would that person apply?

Establish Longer Term Events and Tactics to Help Fill Your Talent Pipeline

There are a number of low-cost/no-cost ways to engage with your community. These initiatives will involve time and effort, but they offer multiple benefits, primarily that more people in your potential talent pool are aware of what your company does. Another indirect benefit is how your staff members may enjoy taking ownership of these kinds of initiatives, which helps the workplace culture and retention. Here are three external tactics being used in Montana:

  • Teacher Externships: For the second year in a row, Montana high school teachers have had three-to-five day experiences working in manufacturing companies. They use what they learn to add manufacturing material to their curriculum and to educate students about types of careers in manufacturing. This is a great idea, since students begin contemplating career choices as early as age 13-14.
  • Manufacturing Day: School and public events on Manufacturing Day help the community understand what you make and what types of jobs you offer. A common response after a company tour is: “I drive by this building all the time, and I never knew what went on inside.”
  • Capstone Projects: Most engineering students are required to conduct a capstone project in their final year. Working with a local university to offer a capstone project (project design, equipment testing, etc.) can build awareness of engineering careers within the manufacturing sector.

Offer Flexible Hours and an Employee-Focused Culture

Flexible hours are extremely helpful to parents who need to transport their children to and from school. Here are other tactics to consider:

  • Child Care: Smaller companies that can’t provide on-site child care have contracted with existing local providers. Others offer a stipend to help offset the cost of childcare.
  • New Shift Options: A client that manufactured recreational products in a college town created a new early morning production shift for college students who were available to work part-time before their classes.
  • Dog Friendly: A dog toy company allows employees to bring their dogs to work (which is important to pet owners in Montana, which has severe weather).
  • Work-Life Balance: A recreational products manufacturer gives employees periodic half-days off for “Fishing Fridays.” They also allow employees to test and Luse company products.
  • Have Fun: For monthly safety meetings, top management at a manufacturing company barbecues and serves lunch to attending staff. Red Oxx Manufacturing, in Billings, hosts a popular music and food truck festival, and according to reports, after each event, people are asking to work there.

Your Local MEP Center Can Help You Be Creative in Difficult Hiring Environments

Being creative about how you expand your talent pipeline will put you in a better position to improve your success in hiring and workforce retention. The MEP National Network™ has a holistic suite of workforce development services that are tailored to the needs of smaller manufacturers. Contact your local MEP Center to talk with a workforce specialist about what out-of-the-box ideas will help you address your workforce needs.

About the author

Carla Little, Marketing & Communications, Montana Manufacturing Extension Center

Carla leads communications and marketing activities for the MMEC, which is part of the MEP National Network. She supports the Center’s programs, services, and events, as well as proposal development and grant compliance. Carla previously served as a Communications Specialist and Proposal Coordinator for nearly 20 years at the Western Transportation Institute, a research center also on the Montana State University campus. [email protected]

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