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Nst 221820 Industry Week Article

Workforce—Talent Pipeline

Nov. 18, 2022
How to feed the talent pipeline and keep it flowing

If you are a manufacturer struggling to fill your talent pipeline, you’re not alone. It is now 1.4 times harder to fill open positions than it was in 2018, including entry-level jobs such as assemblers or material handlers, which are often gateways to long-term manufacturing careers.

And the sense of urgency surrounding this workforce gap is growing, as 40% of the current workforce is expected to retire in five years. This means the experienced, more highly-skilled workers will soon no longer be available to train the new generation of entry-level manufacturing workers.

There are best practices you can use to recruit and retain talent, including the highly-coveted Generation Z.

5 Manufacturing Workforce Best Practices

Gen Z, individuals born between 1996 and 2000, are a growing part of the workforce. One of the characteristics that makes Gen Z so desirable is their entrepreneurial spirit. This generation grew up in a do-it-yourself, technically-advanced culture, which made them independent thinkers who embrace innovation.

In Oklahoma, Gen Z makes up nearly 14% of our state’s population. Through the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance (OMA), I have worked with our state’s manufacturing leaders to identify ways to engage this new generation and other desirable talent, from recruiting to onboarding to retention. From personal experience, I can tell you that manufacturing technology and career diversification are essential to filling your talent pipeline and ensuring that pipeline never runs dry. Here are just a few best practices to get you started.

  1. Learn How to Address the Needs of Each Generation of Employees

I have worked with manufacturers who employ as many as five generations of employees: Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and the Silent generation. Engaging all of these employees and retaining them requires learning what they value in an employer.

For example, I have learned that Gen Z employees tend to value a friendly work environment and relationships at their workplace. They often embrace critical questioning and continuous improvement. As I noted earlier, they want to be part of their community, so it is important to create a diverse, inclusive culture that embraces the diversity of your community. They also value technology and are attracted to it.

Older generations appreciate the opportunity to work part time. You should not assume all your older employees are ready to retire. They may want more schedule flexibility or a predictable, part-time schedule. You may also need to engage your older, more experienced employees as part of your apprenticeship program and training. Show them that you are investing in the next generation of employees, so your seasoned employees are not wasting their time training someone who will leave in less than a year.

Incentive pay and bonus structures are important for all generations when it comes to retention. If your employees know their pay will increase when they meet and exceed their production goals, their trust in you as an employer will increase. Praise is also very important. You need to be intentional with words, as well as pay.

  1. Create Career Pathways for Job Candidates and Existing Employees

One of the best recruiting tools is the ability to show young job candidates a career path at your organization. It is a way to show the job candidate that you are willing to invest in them, and that you will help them move into job positions that match their skills and interests.

For example, maybe you are looking to hire an assembler. When interviewing for the position, you can map out a path to show them how they can learn new skills from your more experienced workers. As an assembler, he or she would quickly learn core competencies such as advanced blueprint reading, machine operation, or the ability to complete station builds using basic hydraulics, pneumatics, and welding.

Once the assembler is fully trained, his or her career path might look like this:

  • After mastering these core competencies, the employee could then advance into a machine operator or assembly mechanic position.
  • As a machine operator, the employee would learn key skills such as using calipers, dimensional metrology, precision measurement tools for job preparation and production.
  • Or maybe the employee has enough mechanical aptitude to advance into a maintenance technician or become a CNC machinist.
  • The employee could grow into a foreman or supervisor position that could lead into a key management role.

At OMA, we’ve created a Career Pathways tool for some of the most in-demand manufacturing jobs. It not only serves as a recruiting tool, but as a retention tool where existing employees can grow their skills and become key contributors to your company’s growth.

You can also use technology to help “sell” each stage of the career journey. AI-powered cobots, cloud-based CNC machining, and additive manufacturing are just a couple of examples of how manufacturing has undergone a digital revolution and is continuing to evolve from Industry 4.0 to 5.0. This could be a highly-desirable work environment for a young, ambitious Gen Z employee! These technologies could also be key to preventing your existing staff from burning out when there are staffing shortages.

  1. Leverage Apprenticeships, Such as Registered Apprenticeship Programs (RAPs)

Training and education are essential tools for building your talent pipeline, including internships and apprenticeships. If you do not already have an existing apprenticeship program, there are local, state and federal resources that can help you get started.

At OMA, we work with state leaders, education partners, economic development colleagues and industries to create customized Registered Apprenticeship Programs to feed talent pipelines by offering benefits such as:

  • Creating flexible training options that ensure workers develop the right skills before more experienced employees age out of the workforce.
  • Providing paid training as an incentive for recruiting Gen Z and other desirable talent pools.
  • Improving retention rates: in manufacturing 94% of apprentices continue employment after completing an apprenticeship.

I recently worked with an Oklahoma City manufacturer who is using online training for their apprentices, including four CNC machinist apprentices, each around 18 years old. A Tulsa manufacturer is providing a career pathway for 24 welder apprentices through the OMA's Registered Apprenticeship Program. The Tulsa Technology Center provides the related instruction at the manufacturing facility. All of these apprentices are now learning essential skills from manufacturing mentors who have worked in the industry for 20 to 30 years.

  1. Diversify/Expand Your Talent Pool by Re-Evaluating Your Structures

In addition to finding ways to attract Gen Z, you may want to rethink your overall work structures to be more flexible to attract more women. Does every shift really need to start at 6 a.m.? You could even consider providing breakfast for early shifts, to make it easier for parents to get to work on time, after dropping off their children at daycare.

Consider reaching out to your city or local department of rehabilitation, for recruiting individuals with disabilities. Adults with disabilities have fewer sick days, especially with invisible disabilities (not all disabilities are visible). Making disability accommodations does not have to be expensive and can reduce costly absenteeism. You may also increase employee longevity because you are showing the employee you are willing to invest in him or her.

For example, I know one manufacturer who interviewed someone who wanted to drive a forklift, but the job candidate was born with a disability that caused his arms to be shorter than the average adult. Because the manufacturer was working with their local department of rehabilitation, the department helped them make changes to the forklift machinery to easily accommodate this disability. Now they have an employee who can drive the forklift. This accommodation only required a couple of hundred dollars!

  1. Build a Culture of Engagement

Creating a culture of engagement requires you to be intentional with your recruiting and retention efforts.

I have helped manufacturers put engagement plans into action that starts with their recruiting and takes the new employee through the first six months. In the employee interview, you have to be clear about what your company stands for. What are your company’s values? What is your company’s role in your local community? This is especially important for young people and Gen Z, who care about their place in their community and their employer’s culture.

You can start with your website. How does your company portray itself and your people on the site? This is how you should portray yourself during the employee interview. After the employee is hired, you have to listen to them.

Give your new, young employees a chance to engage with your company’s leaders. If you give them a table at the C-suite, when, for example, conducting strategic or operational planning, you can learn from them! And they want to learn from older employees who have been in the industry for decades.

Your team leads and supervisors are the glue of your retention program. They are the ones who have to listen, delegate, encourage employees as they train on the job, and keep them engaged.

Your Local MEP Center Can Help You Grow Your Talent Pipeline

Manufacturing is about production, people, and processes. In order to feed our talent pipeline, we have to look at our processes and change them. The reality is that we do not currently have enough people to fill all the manufacturing jobs. This is why you need a structured approach to workforce development.

Your local MEP Center can help you create a formalized process for your recruiting and training. They also offer automation and training support to help you grow a more highly skilled workforce

About the author: Sharon Harrison, EdD, is director of Workforce Training, Development for the Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance’s (OMA) workforce strategy for the state, focusing on facilitating employer-driven workforce solutions and partnerships.

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