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Developing Your Workforce in an Age of Worker Shortages

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

The Skills Gap was already a big challenge before the pandemic. It’s even bigger now. More people are retiring, changing careers or starting new jobs than ever before, leaving businesses of all stripes in the lurch.

America Works supports the MEP National Network, which supplies small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses across the country with workforce development, training, and consulting services. (Provided by America Works)

Some of this is due to the rise in pandemic-related remote work, a trend that enables more flexible hiring and lets people seek new opportunities, but there’s also the fact that many in the workforce are looking at the past two years of COVID-19 fueled disruption as a reason to change their livelihoods.

For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly 13 million people quit their jobs in July through September of last year, at a time when the nation averaged more than 10 million openings on any given day. These figures align with a Washington Post poll conducted around that time suggesting that one-third of all workers under 40 have considered changing careers during the pandemic. And Bankrate’s August Job Seeker Survey stated that 55 percent of Americans expect to search for a new job over the next year, all due to the coronavirus. People, it seems, are on the move.

Correcting the Past

On top of all this bad news sits the same problem the United States and many other countries have grappled with for decades—a shortage of skilled workers. The result? Manufacturers are finding it darned challenging to staff their production floors. “This industry offers fantastic jobs with real career paths and nice starting salaries without a four-year degree,” said Matthew Fieldman, executive director of America Works. “Despite this, we have 900,000 open manufacturing positions right now. As I said in a recent blog post on the NIST website, it’s time that we up our recruitment game.”

As to this last part, we have ourselves to blame; much of the current situation stems from what Fieldman just mentioned: college degrees, and the attitude that earning one means we can avoid becoming a blue-collar worker. For instance, a 2011 Pew Research Center survey noted that “among parents of children 17 or younger, 94 percent say they expect them to attend college.” That goes hand in hand with this statement from Forbes magazine just a few years later: “The demise of vocational education at the high school level has bred a skills shortage in manufacturing today.”

Add to this a general attitude in the U.S. that manufacturing and the trades are “dirty jobs,” and we as a country are left in a precarious position. The Brookings Institution noted that “the United States lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs between June 1979, when manufacturing employment peaked and December 2009,” practically all of it due to trade deficits and low-cost labor in other countries. And while our elected officials on both sides of the aisle have done little to address any of these sad statistics, the good news is that the manufacturing industry is doing something about it.

How America Works

America Works, Fieldman explained, is a “national program designed to get everyone in the manufacturing ecosystem working together to fill these open jobs and get our current workforce skilled up.” Based in Cleveland, America Works supports the 51 Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Centers across all 50 states and Puerto Rico. “It was funded by a three-year grant from the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to improve the cooperation, collaboration and communication between manufacturing workforce partners through the fall of 2023,” he said.

America Works is one of the many organizations working to alleviate the skills gap by teaching young people about manufacturing. (Provided by America Works)

“The MEP National Network is devoted to serving the small and medium-sized manufacturing community and to helping them compete globally while growing locally,” Fieldman added. “Manufacturers with fewer than 500 employees typically struggle with everything from operations and supply chain management to workforce and product development. We assist with all of that and more.”

He prefers “The Great Recognition” over the previous terms, suggesting that the others bear a negative connotation, one that implies workers are lazy, fickle or lack commitment. “The Great Recognition” is more inclusive as, according to Fieldman, “employees, employers and workforce development practitioners nationwide are all recognizing new trends or the amplification of existing ones, disrupting the American workforce in ways that are here to stay.”

Whatever you call it, though, there’s no reason manufacturers should struggle with such problems alone, he said, encouraging companies of all sizes to reach out to their local MEP Center for information on workforce development.

“We have both in-house expertise and a trusted network of subcontractors that we can turn to who will provide the most reliable and impactful consulting available,” Fieldman said. “When there are other countries massively subsidizing their manufacturing sectors, we really have to focus on our own and make sure that every tier of the supply chain is staffed with the best people and making the best products. That’s how we’re going to compete and win in a global marketplace.”

Meet Jane Addams

On a more local level, there are also organizations like the Jane Addams Resource Corp. (JARC) of Chicago, where company President Regan Brewer Johnson painted a compelling picture of the company’s founding in 1985. “We started off in one of Chicago’s industrial corridors that had suffered the loss of roughly 7,000 manufacturing jobs,” she said. “It was a huge hit to the neighborhood and the families who lived there. So our initial goal was essentially an industrial retention initiative—to stem the flow of jobs out of these small communities—which goes hand in hand with workforce training and development.”

In an attempt to fill open positions, remain competitive, and level the employment playing field, many companies are turning to women and minorities for their labor needs. (Provided by Jane Addams Resource Corp.)

Once limited to the Chicago area, JARC has expanded to other regions, including Baltimore and, most recently, Rhode Island. When asked whether the job losses JARC is trying to prevent were due to offshoring, Brewer Johnson’s answer was surprising. “That’s a small part of it, but companies move away for a variety of reasons, including a lack of available real estate for expansion, excessive state and local tax rates, and, yes, a shortage of skilled labor. Our program is designed to reduce the last of these, although we do engage with policymakers on the others.”

They’ve been quite successful. The company website notes that JARC has “helped thousands of job seekers achieve self-sustainability, and hundreds of businesses improve their competitiveness.” Doing so has been achieved through a mix of vocational training, tutoring in basic skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics, computer use, GED preparation and English as a Second Language.

“Given the massive skills shortage, many companies have turned to sources of talent that have long been overlooked, including women and minorities,” said Brewer Johnson. “Some have also made a larger commitment to their local communities than they have in the past. Both are necessary if companies are to remain competitive.”

Making Manufacturing Smarter

Where JARC might work with companies to address workforce skills gaps like forklift operation and blueprint reading or engage with them on tactical projects such as setup time improvement or plant-wide scrap reduction, Los Angeles-based CESMII helps them adopt smart manufacturing—in fact, founded in 2017 as a five-year, $140 million public/private partnership, it is known as the United States’ national institute on smart manufacturing.

“Our mission is the democratization of smart manufacturing (SM),” said Conrad Leiva, vice president of ecosystem and workforce education at CESMII. “Meaning that SM methodologies and technologies developed over recent years are made available at scale to small and medium-sized manufacturers. Part of that mission is workforce education, because in order to democratize SM, you need a talent pipeline able to implement and use it.”

Smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 technologies cover a broad range of technologies including 3D printing, robotics, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and more; technologies Fieldman refers to as the nine pillars of Industry 4.0. And like America Works, CESMII leverages the federal government’s MEP program for assistance, and as a pipeline to manufacturers wishing to pursue an SM strategy.

To help stem the flow of jobs from small communities, organizations like the Jane Addams Resource Corp. are focusing on workforce training and development. (Provided by Jane Addams Resource Corp.)

Leiva listed some of the obstacles facing manufacturers, chief among them a lack of plug-and-play integration between legacy systems and IIoT technology, and high implementation costs. “And then there’s education,” he said. “It’s not enough to simply collect data. Manufacturers must also know how to analyze it, and leverage artificial intelligence (AI) for optimization and control, all in real time. That’s one of smart manufacturing’s key deliverables.”

In addition to real-time data exchange, CESMII’s roadmap targets a 50 percent reduction in SM deployment costs by 2025 and a five-fold increase in SM workforce capacity five years after that, goals supported by CESMII’s network of more than 130 industry leaders. As a CESMII partner, the Southfield, Mich.-based Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), announced in November that the two non-profit trade organizations were joining forces to “help companies boost productivity, build a strong talent pipeline and reduce manufacturers’ carbon footprint.”

It’s PRIME Time

The partnership with CESMII is the most recent example of how SME has been supporting manufacturers for decades with programs like the SME Education Foundation, which has helped companies, schools and especially students since its founding in 1979. Vice President Rob Luce pointed to its flagship program, SME PRIME (Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education), a comprehensive training initiative that works with industry and high schools throughout the United States to build or expand hands-on manufacturing programs, complete with equipment, curriculum, professional development for teachers, STEM-related extracurricular activities, and scholarships for students.

“We currently have 63 programs across 22 states and every one of them is unique, tailored to meet the needs of that school’s local manufacturing community,” he said. “This allows students to graduate with the skill sets and certifications relevant to potential employers in that area.”

Luce explained that there are seven “SME PRIME pathways” and every school receives three of them by default: additive manufacturing, metrology and quality, and computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM). On top of these, they receive one elective pathway, such as machining or welding, which again is determined by the needs of area manufacturers.

Not surprisingly, mechatronics and robotics is the most common elective choice. “An increasing number of companies are looking at automation as the path forward, not to mention technologies such as Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things, and they need students who understand these processes,” Luce said.

Unfortunately, manufacturing continues to have a perception problem, he added. Many high school students in this country and their parents see it as a dull, boring job—a viewpoint SME PRIME schools help eliminate. And as with additive manufacturing, automation is one of the components of so-called “new age” manufacturing. “By emphasizing these pathways, we help plant the seed that this is a very cool industry that’s doing some cutting-edge things and offers young people a rewarding career choice.”

Hit the Books

Learning about any subject requires high-quality educational materials and manufacturing is no different. Enter Tooling U-SME, an important partner to SME PRIME schools and thousands of companies. These include Caterpillar, Raytheon, Siemens, General Electric, Ford, Johnson & Johnson and many others, all of which utilize Tooling U-SME’s portfolio of online and instructor-led training courses, nationally recognized certifications, as well as its consulting services.

John Hindman, director of learning and performance improvement at Tooling U-SME, heads up the latter. “We are learning and development specialists who work with manufacturers to better onboard, develop, and retain their workforces,” he said. “As with SME’s PRIME school program, we’re very much on-site with our customers, helping them to identify and define job roles, build strategies to develop skill sets, structure their training curricula, and do whatever is needed to standardize and accelerate workers to the desired performance level.”

Hindman offered a sad statistic that emphasizes the need for his group’s services. While performing an audit of a large manufacturing employer in early 2021, Tooling U-SME determined that 588 people had left the company within the first three months of hiring that year. At an average onboarding cost of $2,000 per employee, the manufacturer had already lost more than $1 million, with no end in sight.

“Studies indicate that, in the absence of a strong onboarding process or orientation program, most individuals decide within one day of hiring whether they’re going to stay with that company or not,” he said. “Any investment in training dollars is minute compared to the safety risks, quality issues, and general disruption and cost that come with high turnover rates.”

Hindman and his team are also working to capture the tribal knowledge that exists in so many workers’ heads, information that will be lost once the employee retires or moves to another company. This is achieved by interviewing employees and documenting the processes for which they are directly responsible, building a knowledge base that can be handed off to others when the need arises. Such information becomes a valuable company record and can be used in the development of apprenticeship programs or onboarding new employees.

“And, of course, we’re constantly out there either helping companies develop more strategic, sustainable training programs, and in some cases, building them from scratch,” said Hindman. “For example, I’m working with a customer right now that has 34 locations. We’re putting chief trainers in each plant, establishing common onboarding and on-the-job training and qualification materials, and the like. That said, we also help much smaller companies who might not have the budget for a comprehensive program like this. What’s most important, regardless of company size, is to start somewhere. There’s lots of material and support out there, and if we as an industry don’t do a better job of workforce development, our job is only going to get more challenging going forward.”

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