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At a Crossroads: Manufacturing Needs A New Employment Attitude

Oct. 7, 2020
Dealing with the pandemic has unfurled a profound discussion on the fundamental tenets of workforce culture.

I remember a time when what was expected of me was to arrive at work on time, dressed in business attire, and stay glued to my desk from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with an occasional lunch break.

A face to- face conversation with those higher on the corporate ladder was a reason to celebrate as that interaction could lead to an eventual promotion. If I could gather the nerve to offer my ideas for process improvement during a strategy meeting, I was set for the year.

How things have changed.

Now I can work early in the morning while the rest of the world sleeps, dressed in yoga pants and T-shirt. I can take a hike at lunch and finish up my day at 9 p.m. if I want.

I no longer have to wait for in-person town hall meetings, as it seems every time I turn around my CEO is on Zoom assuring me that our company is doing well given these difficult economic times. I am free to email anyone if I have an idea that can improve a process or create a new line of revenue.

But perhaps the best part is that I know my company trusts me to do the best job I can in a manner that works for me. How I meet specific goals is up to me.

I find that I have a new attitude. And I am not alone.

Roland Busch, deputy CEO of Siemens, signaled a change in his company’s attitude when he announced on July 16, 2020, a policy of “mobile working” two to three days a week, permanently. Mobile working, the company explained, is more than just working from home. It means employees choosing the work locations where they’re most productive.

“The basis for this forward-looking working model is a further development of our corporate culture. These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office,” Busch said. “We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results. With the new way of working, we’re motivating our employees while improving the company’s performance capabilities and sharpening Siemens’ profile as a flexible and attractive employer.”

Will Bonifant, vice president of engineering at The Hershey Co., echoes this people-first attitude as a foundation of corporate culture. Bonifant told IndustryWeek company culture is the key to success, no matter what circumstances arise.

“At Hershey, we’ve always put our people first as our greatest asset and what sets us apart,” Bonifant said. “Our experience during COVID-19 was no different. From the start, we put the safety of our employees as our top priority and invested significant time and resources to ensure safe working environments. As a result, we have been able to continuously operate our plants without interruption throughout the pandemic.”

Flexibility Takes Center Stage

Flexibility, necessary to navigate a global pandemic, is moving front and center within corporate culture. Groupe PSA, the French automaker, talks about a “new era of agility.” In a May 6, 2020, statement announcing the extension of remote working, the company said, “Given the positive experience and efficient measures already taken in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, Groupe PSA has therefore decided to strengthen teleworking and to make it the benchmark for activities not directly related to production.”

The pandemic is causing many companies to reexamine their workforce culture. “You can’t use the old playbook now,” explains Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “There isn’t a roadmap that works across the board for all manufacturing companies. So, companies will have to look closely at their culture, which could mean changing both procedures and attitudes.”

Part of adjusting procedures and culture includes addressing work classifications, some of which are unique to manufacturing. For example, while some office personnel have been able to work remotely during the crisis, production workers largely need to be within the four walls of the factory.

“In talking with many manufacturing companies navigating working conditions due to the pandemic, there is a heightened awareness about not exacerbating the divide between production and non-production roles,” says Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, the education and workforce partner of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Awareness can lead to change. “From my perspective, manufacturing organizations should fully embrace this period of change: Rethink their attitudes toward the workforce and take this time to reimagine their corporate culture,” says Kylene Zenk, director, manufacturing practice, UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group).

“A great culture is supported by a great employee experience—one where all employees feel safe, empowered, have the ability to learn and develop, and, perhaps most importantly, the flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance,” she says. “And it’s vital that this positive experience is extended to all—from those working in finance, HR, or other administrative functions, to the frontline plant workers and warehouse employees.”

The trouble is that employers often equate flexibility with working from home, Zenk suggests. “This not being an option for most plant floor workers, the suggestion to extend flexibility to the frontline is commonly dismissed. But there are other ways to provide frontline workers with flexibility—manufacturers just need to get creative in their approach,” she says.

Manufacturing has a history of adapting, and Paul sees it happening again. “The smart employers are going to find ways of structuring workforce policies that will address the new needs of both categories of workers.”

Tomorrow’s Workforce Is at Stake

This need to reexamine policies applies not only to the current workforce but to future workers as well. “Manufacturers realize that if they want to attract highly skilled workers, they will need to adjust their culture and explore new ways of thinking,” Paul adds.

The pandemic’s unique circumstances showcased one of the challenges to attracting the future workforce. “If someone can make a good wage working remotely, that is an attractive offer,” says Paul. “Factories will have to compete directly for those workers and might have to rethink the packages that they offer workers.”

What might or should such packages include? Perhaps a safety net, which seems to be absent from many production jobs. The pandemic highlighted some of the basic differences between production workers and non-production workers. White-collar workers had more options, including more leave time, better healthcare options and, generally, larger salaries. While unions provide such options to some workers, only 10% of the production population is unionized, leaving most production workers with fewer benefits. While this might be an oversimplification of a complex problem, it is something manufacturers will have to address.

The strength of the industry’s training and development programs—which has been deemed an important criterion by the younger generation when choosing careers—is another area that will require closer examination as employment attitudes change. AAM’s Paul noted that while some companies have strong training and apprenticeship programs, “it’s still an area that many manufacturers need to offer.”  

“Manufacturing’s skilled talent shortage is a double-edged sword,” says Zenk. “A silver tsunami threatens to thin the workforce substantially, and few young people are lining up to fill their roles. This widening gap poses a legitimate threat to production demands.”

At the same time, Zenk notes, a Gallup Report recently found that manufacturing workers were the least engaged compared to “employees in every other major occupation.”

“What this means is that employee engagement—perhaps the missing link to solving the industry’s recruitment and retention challenges—should be a growing priority for manufacturers, and certainly a competitive differentiator for those that can do it well,” Zenk says.

Socially Conscious Engagement

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated mixed reactions from the younger generations, according to Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director, Metropolitan Policy Program, at the Brookings Institution.

“Younger people are at once frustrated with what’s been ineffective in the crisis and very idealistic about contributing to make things better. Some of that might well draw some of them to the manufacturing sector,” he says. 

“Manufacturing again has suggested its higher calling in the PPE crisis, with—in some cases—heroic moves to produce essential items. Such turnarounds may well appeal to workers wanting to make a difference.”

Attracting workers who want to make a profound impact is, in fact, an ideal opportunity for an industry that is currently being recognized for stepping up to the plate during the pandemic. Is it reflected in your new workforce attitude?   

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Sr. Editor

Focus: Workforce, Talent 

Email: [email protected]

Follow Me on Twitter: @ASelkoIW

Senior Editor Adrienne Selko has written about many topics over the 17 years she has been with the publication and currently focuses on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics and EHS Today. 

Previously Adrienne was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. 

She is the author of  Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list. 

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