By Alec R. Meinke
News flash: Good people are hard to find. And they’re getting harder. Retirement, societal shifts and the stark lack of interest by young people have created a technical skills vacuum throughout manufacturing in the United States.
Corporations are pressured to provide higher earnings largely through cost improvements, while their budgets remain static or are reduced. Until we replace people with artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities, the manufacturing sector’s success continues to rely on people. People make or break a company and with increased demands on manufacturing plants throughout the country, the need to recruit, train and retain skilled employees is critical.
You already know the scenario. The number of technically competent personnel has dwindled for a variety of reasons. Collectively we have not done an adequate job done of handing technical skills and know-how down to successive generations. Baby Boomers are all but extinct in manufacturing thanks to buy-outs and early retirements and, increasingly, the aging of this demographic. Facilities blessed with the remnant should take advantage of their skill and wisdom while they have the opportunity.
Meanwhile, technology advances each year. In an attempt to produce a wider variety of SKUs at faster rates, companies install state-of-the-art equipment with the newest hardware and software. This practice intensifies the technical skills shortage, as most companies do not have the skill sets required to maintain the technology level they currently have. In essence, companies have inadvertently widened the technology gap within their own facilities.
Furthermore, public K-12 education has failed miserably with respect to supplying industry with the quantities and quality of technically oriented young people. Technical- trade classes have all but disappeared, and the ones that remain do not focus on the skills required to be a successful technician in the manufacturing industry.
If you search the Internet for automation and controls curricula, you will find that some educational institutions are realizing the need for such instruction. Many junior colleges now offer associates degrees in some form of manufacturing technology. The problem with most of these programs is that the course work is very general and does not provide the students with the practical knowledge and hands-on experience required by modern manufacturing.
Many of the manufacturing facilities I am familiar with seem oblivious to the shortage of qualified technicians. Some plant leadership is not capable of determining who is qualified and who is not. Often managers have little or no technical knowledge, so it’s hard for them to know technically qualified people when they see them.
Every manufacturing facility I have been in over the past 25 years has had a deficiency of electrical and controls knowledge. As manufacturing continues to become more automated, the skill level of plant technicians must increase accordingly or productivity will suffer.
No Quick Fixes
This situation did not materialize overnight, nor will the remedy. The task may seem daunting, but you cannot finish unless you start. And you have to be prepared to spend time and money to get the job done. Manufacturing companies that are committed to training spend between 3% and 4% of their annual payroll on training activities.
You have to retain and develop the technical talent you have while recruiting more. Promoting from within is a great idea when it is based primarily on merit. Accepting less than you need from a position is never a good idea. Hiring proven technical talent from outside will provide you with new knowledge that can be transferred to your existing technical personnel.
I recommend a three-faceted approach to overcome technical skills deficiencies:
- Attract new technical talent.
- Train and develop the technical talent you currently have.
- Retain the technical talent you have.
Attract New Talent
This strategy minimizes the time it takes to fully develop technical talent. It can also provide the next wave of technical talent to your organization through hiring relatively inexperienced technical personnel. If you choose to hire inexperienced candidates, having an internal technical development program in place is imperative.
To execute this strategy effectively, you will need technically competent managers. If you don’t have them, I suggest using outside help to attract new technical talent for both management and hourly positions. I have implemented many of the following steps to attract new talent with a great deal of success:
- Perform a salary survey for similar jobs in your area. The salary and benefits package that you offer must be attractive to potential candidates or you will loose them to another employer over a few dollars a year. The old adage is true—you do get what you pay for. If you want the best technical people available in your area, you must provide a compensation package that will lure established technical talent from other employers.
- Provide a wide salary range for your technical positions. This will allow you to bring in less experienced people, but also pay for seasoned professionals.
- Develop a realistic job description for each technical position. Do not be afraid to update these job descriptions as required.
- Determine the core competencies that your technical personnel must have for each position. What do they need to know? Do not decide this in a vacuum; get your existing technical personnel and those in other departments to provide input. If you fail to do this, you might overlook something because your opinion about a specific skill set might vary drastically from those in another department.
- Develop an assessment tool for qualifying technical talent from the outside. The assessment should combine cognitive and practical evaluation. If your organization is not capable of developing this assessment, you can hire a consultant to put one together. The cost will be far outweighed by that of dealing with the wrong people once they are hired.
- Do not compromise your standards. Hiring the wrong people is much worse than having vacant positions. Presumably you need each budgeted technical position, so you cannot afford to have the wrong person in any job.
- Explain the technology that new hires will be exposed to and the training they will receive.
- Have technical candidates come in and work on a project with current members of your technical group. Compensate them as if they were in the position they applied for. This can be done on a weekend or day off for the candidate. Make sure you have trusted evaluators working with the candidate. Much can be gleaned from this experience. Use the temporary service to process their payroll and insurance. This may seem like an outlandish idea, but it is a very effective evaluation tool.
- Offer a 90-day review to candidates. You will know if they are going to be a performer at this point. If they are performing at or above your expectations, this is an opportunity to compensate them commensurate with their contribution.
- Work with a local educational institution to develop the technical skills needed by your organization. Often the educational institution will need to be coached into the type of course work you require. Donate equipment similar to that used at your facility. Assist the school with curriculum development so its students will be proficient with the equipment upon graduation. Visit the school often and deliver presentations to get the interest of the students. Through this process you can get to know who the best candidates are and pursue them.
- The interview process is often a misleading one. I recommend that you have potential technical candidates come to your facility at least three times before considering them for a position with your organization. Usually this rule does not apply to those people recommended to you by someone in your trusted network of professional associates.
Train and Develop Current Technical Talent
If you are serious about success, you need to be committed to training and developing your existing technical workforce. Consider implementing the following steps: