Solving the Root Cause of Manufacturing's Skilled Worker Shortage

May 14, 2012
Industry executives must change how they view and lead production workers.

It's fitting that we feature Honda of America Manufacturing CEO Hidenobu Iwata as this issue's cover story, along with an in-depth look at the strategies manufacturers are implementing to solve the industry's skilled worker shortage. Senior Editor Josh Cable's report, "Made in America . . . the Honda Way" on page 28, suggests that the solution to the nation's labor woes may reside as much in what executives think as what they do.

The two reports complement each other. Senior Editor Jill Jusko's, "The Training Antidote: Don't Go it Alone," on page 16, focuses on what companies are doing. She presents solid information about what's working that you can adapt for your company, starting today. Her story itself is a refreshing counter-balance to the many more articles that we've read calling on someone elseusually the governmentto solve the problem. (Not that we don't agree that government must play a role; we just have a bias toward offering best practices that leaders in all industries can implement now.)

Companies such as Honda have demonstrated the benefit of valuing production workers

Cable's report suggests a more introspective but possibly more enduring strategy. At Honda, and many other high-performing manufacturing companies, C-level executives and other leaders view production workers differentlyas manufacturing process experts who are critical to the continuous improvement of plant floor processes, not as people who must be told what to do and how to do it. In creating a better workplace and better manufacturing processes, they are treated as equals to executiveseven the CEO.

Now be honest: Is that what you believe? Is that how you lead?

For decades in this country, I think we all can agree, we've largely treated the plant-floor workforce as a cost to be cut, not an asset to be valued. Exhortations that "our employees are our most valued asset" became a clich, as our actions signaled otherwise. Can that be a significant reason that many young people won't consider working at a manufacturing company?

As the race for highly skilled production employees intensifies, it will become increasingly important to change that narrative. Companies such as Honda have demonstrated the benefit of valuing production workers to improve quality, speed changeovers and otherwise wring waste out of the manufacturing process. My bet is that Honda's workforce strategyvaluing the production employee through both words and actionswill help change that narrative. It may also go a long way to addressing the root cause of the skilled-worker shortage.

Additional Links:
Find the Missing Pieces in Your Employee-Engagement Effort

Myths of Employee Engagement

Employee Engagement: Your Key to Bottom Line Profitability

Rules of (Employee) Engagement

E-Z-GO: IW Best Plants Profile 2009

About the Author

Patricia Panchak | Patricia Panchak, Former Editor-in-Chief

Focus: Competitiveness & Public Policy

Call: 216-931-9252

Follow on Twitter: @PPanchakIW

In her commentary and reporting for IndustryWeek, Editor-in-Chief Patricia Panchak covers world-class manufacturing industry strategies, best practices and public policy issues that affect manufacturers’ competitiveness. She delivers news and analysis—and reports the trends--in tax, trade and labor policy; federal, state and local government agencies and programs; and judicial, executive and legislative actions. As well, she shares case studies about how manufacturing executives can capitalize on the latest best practices to cut costs, boost productivity and increase profits.

As editor, she directs the strategic development of all IW editorial products, including the magazine,, research and information products, and executive conferences.

An award-winning editor, Panchak received the 2004 Jesse H. Neal Business Journalism Award for Signed Commentary and helped her staff earn the 2004 Neal Award for Subject-Related Series. She also has earned the American Business Media’s Midwest Award for Editorial Courage and Integrity.

Patricia holds bachelor’s degrees in Journalism and English from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in Journalism from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She lives in Cleveland Hts., Ohio, with her family.  

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