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:
- Develop the vision for the technical departments of your organization. Your vision should provide everyone with an ideal picture of what your department looks like. Communicate this vision to everyone in the organization. This provides clarity and accountability throughout the organization.
- Put short- and long-term plans together to achieve the vision. Make sure each person in your department has a part to play and that he or she is crystal-clear about it. Communicate the plan to the entire facility. This furthers the level of accountability for your department as those outside your department will be the first to inform you that you are off-track.
- Evaluate each person for technical skills and knowledge deficiencies and create a personal developmental plan. Make sure that the technical deficiencies are real and are supported by the job description for each position. Cooperatively find training and developmental resources that will address the deficiencies.
- Develop up to five key performance indicators for your department. Keep track of these metrics and communicate the results in a timely manner.
- Meet regularly to discuss where the department is with respect to each KPI so modifications can be made to the weekly work plan. Make sure meetings are used for constructive purposes and do not just become another opportunity to complain. Have an agenda and stick to it. The purpose of the meetings is to reinforce the vision and current plan for getting there. Plans can and will change, but the overall vision of the department will remain the same.
- Teach the business to your people. The more they know about the business, the more they can deduce how much their contribution counts towards your success.
- Develop an annual technical training calendar. Start by budgeting 3% of your department’s payroll for training. Provide training only for subject matter that is directly related to improvement of your facility. Once the calendar is established, do not let apparent emergencies and fire fighting force training cancellation. Canceling sessions sends the message that you are not really committed to training. Use your vendors for free lunch-and-learn training if possible. These sessions are usually nothing more than a glorified sales pitch, but they give your people an opportunity to ask questions and further exemplifies your commitment to training.
- Set up off-line simulations of your electrical and controls equipment. Train and certify your people on this equipment, and they will be prepared to work on the actual production equipment.
Retaining Technical Talent Once You Have It
Loosing good technical talent is time-consuming, frustrating and costly. Technical people change jobs for a variety of reasons. You can’t prevent the retirement or move because of a spouse’s relocation, but you can address issues such as money, lack of appreciation or lack of leadership. Do the following to retain the technical talent you currently have.
- Provide leadership! Most technically proficient personalities are hard-wired for direction and analytical order. Most organizations are starving for real leadership. Leadership sets the course for the department by planning, directing, helping, serving and following up. Good leadership is accountable for results and holds those in their charge accountable for results.
- Be consistent. People observe inconsistencies in both policy and personality. There are obviously more factors involved, but your credibility can only rise to the level of your consistency.
- Provide all the tools and resources necessary to achieve your organization’s goals. Get your people in the habit of using data to make decisions and asking for tools and resources that are needed. Never say no if it is going to help drive the business forward. Cost is a concern for most companies, but my experience is that you can afford the things that are needed.
- Implement a pay-for-skills program. Give the people some incentive to grow professionally. Make sure the program has real achievement goals tied to demonstrative skill and knowledge. Advancement must be given to those that have earned it and not based on popularity or time. Not everyone will excel in this arena, which is okay. The next generation of technical leadership will present itself partly through advancement through this program. Do not rush into this process because it needs to be done right so that it does not backfire. The knowledge and skills required for advancement have to mean that the person is of greater value to the organization once completed.
- Hold people accountable for results. The best employees challenge themselves and those around them to continually improve. Where there is a lack of accountability there is a lack of productivity.
- People are your greatest asset, take care of them and they will take care of you. Spend time getting to know those placed in your charge. You will be able to deal much more effectively with each person once you know what makes him or her tick.
- Provide tuition assistance for continuing education. Make the employee pay for the first round of classes. Reimburse the employee based on the grade they receive. This process needs to be sold as a very positive privilege. If you decide to implement tuition reimbursement program, be sure to develop an agreement for the employee to sign that states they will stay for at least 18 months after you provide the last tuition reimbursement. I have worked for companies that had no such agreement and people left immediately upon graduation. You are doing this to improve your employees and improve the results of your facility.
- Provide honest and frequent feedback to your employees. I like to put a recurring routine in my CMMS that annunciates when a one-on-one meeting with an employee is due. Meet with each person at least quarterly. This meeting allows the employee to tell you what is important to her and allows you to provide honest feedback outside of the review process.
- Conduct electrical and controls training using the equipment manuals and schematics in your possession. I like to call it “cabinet-based training.” Start with the most mysterious equipment and spend as long as it takes to completely cover the mechanical and electrical systems using the drawings and ladder logic in your possession. This activity will also flush out any deficiencies in your inventory of technical documentation. Share the documentation with everyone involved in the training exercise.
- Have a genuine interest in the prosperity and well-being of your employees and their families. Demonstrate this when they come to you and ask for time off to go to an important family activity or event. Cover for them yourself if need be. This will start to show them that you are sincere.
- Find out what your employees are passionate about and help them achieve their goals.
- Celebrate real results and don’t have a cookout or party just because it has been awhile since you got together. People are smart, and they know when they are being patronized. Too many people try to buy the respect and admiration of their staffs.
- Conduct weekly meetings with an agenda and follow-up items. You cannot over- communicate. Most organizations I have worked with suffered from “I-was-never-told-that” fever. Get to the point where your people are telling others what you went them to know. A litmus test for whether or not you are under-communicating in your organization is if you hear the dreaded phrase, “What are they going to about that.” The “they” is usually you, and you often wonder why they said that, since you thought you told everyone.
- Provide frequent and honest feedback to each person in the department.
- Use results-based rewards. Effort is appreciated, but results keep the operation profitable. Many times plant leadership erroneously equates results with effort. You hope they are simultaneous, but never are they synonymous. Results always equate to success.
Alec Meinke is a Senior Project Manager with ARMTECH. A company based in Kansas City, Missouri that specializes in the development of industrial reliability and training systems.
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