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Thriving Through 'The Great Resignation'

Ed Sinkora
By Ed Sinkora Contributing Editor, SME Media
Job searches and interviews are increasingly conducted online. Top companies also are using A.I. to improve applicant screening. And video interviews have become so effective that some companies now are making job offers without ever having met the candidate in person.

Our last feature on workforce development was less than two years ago, (“Building the Next-Gen Manufacturing Workforce,” July 2021), and human nature is fairly immutable. So, why cover it again now? For one thing, according to Jeannine Kunz, SME’s chief workforce development officer, COVID-19 has changed virtually everyone’s attitude about work. She cited Gartner Inc.’s finding that 65% of people surveyed said the pandemic “made me rethink the place that work should have in my life.” In fact, more than 4 million Americans voluntarily left their jobs in each of the past 18 months, a significantly higher rate than we’ve seen in decades.

At the same time, Kunz cautioned, too many organizations fail to recognize that human capital is the number one competitive differentiator. “It’s easy to get caught up in the acquisition of technology,” she said. “It’s certainly easy, rightfully so, for manufacturers to get caught up in day-to-day operations, ensuring quality, safety, productivity, and meeting customer demand. But stepping back and ensuring that people are a core element of success requires thoughtfulness about recruiting, onboarding, training, and career progression, with an underpinning of company culture.”

So let’s review the ways a company can improve in each of these critically important areas.

Maintain a Modern Image

To attract talent, companies must present a modern image, and that often starts online.

“Today’s consumers, whether buying a car, deciding which school to go to, or which company to work for, are doing more research before making critical life decisions,” said Matt Hladki, chief administrative officer at Grede Holdings LLC, a Southfield, Mich.-based precision caster. “And where do people go if they want information now? The internet.”

As a result, Grede completely revamped its website. The primary color had been black and “was all about fire and molten iron.” That’s accurate, to a point, but not the right image, in Hladki’s opinion. Now the site is white and blue. “Blue is the color of technology. If you think of any company that people associate with technology, like Meta, Twitter, and Instagram, their primary colors are blue. … We’ve rebranded the organization, focusing not only on aspects of the foundry, but on our investments in technology. Things like robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and A.I.”

Hladki recommends extending this effort beyond a company’s own website to social media sites, especially job search sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor that let members anonymously post employer reviews, ratings, details on the interview process, and salary information. More than four in five candidates are wary of working for a company with a poor online reputation, and 55% said they would reconsider applying to a company with a negative score on Glassdoor, Hladki said, citing the company’s website.

Grede now actively works to improve its image on these platforms. That includes responding to reviews and encouraging employees to post reviews. That last point is perhaps key. If happy employees don’t review their company, there’s a big risk that potential hires will only see the negative reviews of disgruntled people who left or were let go. Grede is also active on Instagram and has launched a Vimeo video channel to “meet people where they’re at,” as Hladki put it. “There’s no one silver bullet. If there were, we’d all be using it.”

Finally, it helps both recruiting and retention to give employees an inspiring reason for being on the team beyond “running a machine,” or “designing tooling.” Is the company contributing to the national defense? Is it saving lives by making medical products? Does it donate a portion of profits to benefit a worthy cause? This type of information should be shared and promoted throughout the organization.

Launching "Grow with Grede" at a targeted career conference, another smart way to attract the right candidates. (Provided by Grede)

Send Any Good Texts Lately?

“(Most) recruiting processes and methodologies are decades old,” Kunz noted. “In some cases, the closest we’ve come to evolving is that we are no longer sending our resume in the mail, it now goes through an online portal. Everything about your recruitment needs to be revisited.”

Coromant offers free training on virtually any machining challenge, combining classroom sessions and machine demos. The company will even customize it for you. (Provided by Sandvik Coromant)

Texting is now the preferred method of communications for most people, and studies have shown efficiency and satisfaction improvements for companies that incorporate this into their outreach strategies. That’s important, because a company can lose good candidates if its hiring process takes too long.

Kunz cited automated texting with the assistance of artificial intelligence (A.I.), sentiment analysis, and chatbots. “It’s a way of measuring and leveraging technology to keep people engaged, answer their basic questions, and keep them on track, whether it’s getting the application in, or sending out reminders like, ‘We’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow at 10.’”

The same mechanism is helpful throughout the onboarding process and beyond, helping employees keep up with training and other requirements.

Top companies are also using A.I. and sentiment analysis to improve their applicant screening, Kunz said. This new technology “can be asking questions that are predetermined by HR to target people who are interested and a good fit, while weeding out people who are just responding to hundreds of job posts.” She pointed to bots that offer 24-7/365 engagement and have “been scientifically proven in some instances to address 80% of questions asked, with more than 80% engagement rates with prospective employees.”

Another lesson the pandemic hammered home is the value of remote video meetings. Not only do video interviews cut down the need for travel and speed up the process, they’ve proven so effective that some companies now make job offers without ever having met the candidate in person (something that’s unlikely based on just a phone interview), according to Kunz. “It is all about looking at how the use of available technology can improve the outcomes and process for finding and filling jobs.”

Expanding the Recruiting Base

The 2021 article covered the benefit of hiring from underrepresented communities. But it didn’t mention people leaving the military, which Hladki has identified as an “untapped pipeline of potential talent.” Kunz agreed, saying characteristics associated with veterans, such as discipline and punctuality, are a good fit for manufacturing.

Another lesson from the pandemic: Companies that had no work-from-home or flex-time options were pushed to implement them, and should continue these practices when practical to remain competitive. “Not all manufacturing jobs require being in the plant,” Kunz observed. “You should consider offering some type of flexibility. Because it is something that others are giving to both the people you’re trying to recruit and your existing employees.”

Another way to broaden the pool of potential employees is to reconsider educational requirements. Some of the most tech-focused companies have increasingly found that the skills needed for some jobs don’t require specific degrees. According to a Burning Glass Institute study, 38% of the job listings for manufacturing production supervisors required a bachelors degree or higher in 2017, while only 33% did so in 2020. The change in maintenance/service supervisors was even greater, dropping from 33% to 25% over the same timeframe.

Award-Winning Training

After clearing the recruiting and onboarding hurdles, the next challenge is training. If done poorly, quality and productivity will suffer, and new hires are likely to be lost.

“People want to succeed. They want to do a good job,” explained Tami Green, learning and development manager at Milbank Manufacturing Co., Kansas City, Mo. “We should want to help them be successful. You must clearly explain to people what you expect of them. Otherwise, you can’t expect it of them," she continued. "You must let them know they are doing a good job or if they’re doing a bad job. Otherwise, you cannot expect real growth to happen.”

Founded in 1927, Milbank was SME’s first winner of the Excellence in Manufacturing Training Award in 2020. Milbank uses the "training within industry" (TWI) approach, created to boost production during the 1940s when factories had to rely on “farmers, fishermen, and women who were willing to fill the jobs left by the men who went off to fight during the war.”

The TWI concept uses internal experts—machine operators, for example—to break down tasks and create detailed instructions, standardize these instructions, and then train to these standards. Adherents review and update instructions regularly, but maintain uniformity. They always explain why things should be done a certain way. Green acknowledged that TWI is “not easy to implement, because it takes patience, practice, dedication, and consistency,” but it pays off in the long run.

Sometimes it's difficult to get the most experienced workers to share information—not to mention produce training documents, according to Green. Yet the program required it, so they’ve divided the responsibilities.

“There’s something in this process that everyone can do," she said. "Maybe they’re better at identifying or documenting the steps. Some people are really good trainers. Some people just aren’t comfortable with it. So we work with them all to find their strength and figure out where that fits.”

The SME training award winner in 2022, AGC Automotive Americas Co., Bellefontaine, Ohio, takes a similarly structured approach to training—plus helpful technology. RealWear headsets are one such aid, explained Spencer Noel, training and development staff associate. These devices enable a worker to see video of a properly performed task while they, themselves, are performing the task.

AGC also uses iPads on the shop floor to call up instructions as needed. Each workstation has a laminated document with rows of QR codes, one of which applies to that station. If employees are unsure about something, they simply scan the appropriate QR code with the iPad and get a detailed, up-to-date guide. This replaces hundreds of pieces of paper, said Noel, “and it links to our file-sharing system. So if there’s a change, the updated version is immediately available online without any footwork.”

Priceless Training for Free

When it comes to the all important topic of machining, the industry can make use of online courses from Tooling U-SME and Titans of CNC, plus leading cutting-tool companies such as Kennametal and Sandvik Coromant. What’s more, Sandvik Coromant offers free in-person training at two well-equipped facilities in the United States (its headquarters in Mebane, N.C., and Schaumburg, Illinois), coupled with dedicated traveling application engineers who offer customized training—again, absolutely free.

Sandvik Coromant’s most popular “canned” course is Metal Cutting Technology (MCT), which lasts three days and covers tool wear and maintenance, plus techniques to get the best results in turning, milling, drilling, parting, grooving, threading, and tapping. It features both classroom instruction and live machine demos.

Post-pandemic attendance at Sandvik’s training centers has picked up, according to Nick Falgiatano, marketing manager for the Americas. “There’s definitely a benefit to being able to take someone out of their environment and put them in a neutral environment where the focus is 100% on education.” At the same time, companies are reluctant to send more than a few people.

“There are many cases of the relationship starting with one or two people coming to our MCT and then requesting more and more training specific to their environment and the applications they run into. It’s not uncommon for one of our trainers to take a topic and some of our existing content and tailor it to their specific environment, their applications, their materials, and their industry segment.”

Damien Feucht, an industrial engineering tech for Kondex Corp., Lomira, Wis., praised the training Sandvik Coromant delivered in-house. He described a comprehensive program mirroring MCT and added that customization enabled them to split CNC lathe operators and CNC mill operators to get them in more focused areas of training. “For instance, lathe operators received training on external turning, tool codes for turning, internal turning, and boring. The milling group received milling, square shoulder milling, and drilling training sessions. Sandvik Coromant’s training used some of our actual tooling that we use in production. Several samples of tool holders, mill heads, and inserts were used in conjunction with Sandvik Coromant’s ‘Metal Cutting Technology Training Handbook.’”

Feucht explained that Kondex is a large, three-shift operation, which Sandvik Coromant accommodated by delivering multiple sessions, including a 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. class. “During the training we had class sizes that were as small as eight associates and as large as 25 associates.” Fuecht also remarked that the training did a great job of explaining how to use the information on the back of insert boxes for speeds and feeds, surface feet per minute, and feed-per-tooth data. “This data gives us and the operators a great starting point when using a new tool or an existing tool in a new application. It really takes the guess work out of it.”

Furthermore, Fuecht said, “There was a noticeable difference in the skillset of the CNC operators and their comfort level with optimizing tool life and finding the balance between cycle time improvements and overall tool life. We have a continuous improvement program and we noticed an uptick in implemented ideas shortly after the training that were related to using different tools, insert grades, and programmed cutting data.” He added that Kondex has its own “CNC 101” classroom program for its CNC operators. This is augmented with online courses from Tooling U-SME, plus a partnership with a local technical school on topics such as blueprint reading, CNC basic programming, and GD&T. “We have found that face-to-face training is the preferred method, as there are more opportunities to not only ask questions as they come up, but to hear other associates’ questions and ideas. One of the advantages of Sandvik Coromant performing the training onsite is that we have worked together to adjust the training to spend more time and focus on the types of machining and tooling that we use at Kondex. This makes the real-world applications more relatable for all the operators.”

Instant training on the floor: Scan the appropriate QR code with the iPad and get a detailed, up-to-date guide. (Provided by AGC Automotive Americas Co.)

Retaining Top Talent

After recruiting and training, it’s critical to focus on talent retention. “If you don’t create an internal work environment focused on collaboration, respect, communication, trust, and accountability, you will never be able to retain the people you hire,” said Hladki.

As part of a retention strategy, Green said it’s important to have a systematic approach to dealing with people problems before they become big issues or turn into disciplinary actions. “We start with a foundation for good relations by using mutually respectful communication. We let each worker know how they are doing. We give credit when it’s due. We tell people in advance about changes that will affect them. We make the best use out of each person’s ability through development. And we believe leadership is a skill that you can learn through practice.”

Hladki also emphasized development as a way to combat the transitory tendency of today’s workforce, in which getting a big raise typically requires changing companies. “Our goal is to create an environment where employees no longer want to chase that extra dollar an hour down the street, because we’ve created a highly engaging, community based workplace culture. And we have provided very clear development and training opportunities for them to continue to advance their career, whether they’re hourly or salaried. For example, we recently launched our new learning management system, Casting College, to link learning plans to career advancement and development.”

According to Green, employees are encouraged to try several areas on the manufacturing floor to test whether their skillset is a good fit for a given role. Milbank also offers avenues for further advancement, reporting that 25% of its new non-manufacturing positions were filled through internal promotions in 2020.

Finally, Hladki expressed the importance of reaching a personnel vacancy “below 4% on a consistent basis for hourly and salaried employees.” Only then, he concluded, can the business run effectively. It’s common for companies to worry about the risk of working overtime to meet production and maintenance goals, according to Hladki. “But what’s the risk of working them six days a week? How many more people will we lose? How many fewer will we be able to hire when we operate in small communities? Quality goes down. Safety suffers,” he said. The key, as always, is achieving a mutually respectful balance.

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