How Smart Manufacturers are Replenishing their Workforce

posted on: Friday March 7, 2014

DSC_6751The oldest baby boomers are reaching retirement ages, and their exit from the workforce is leaving the manufacturing industry in a workforce bind. Some companies have already felt the impact of the aging workforce, and this is a trend that will continue for the next several years. In Josh Bond’s Modern Materials Handling article, “The U.S. Roadmap for Material Handling & Logistics: Why 2025 matters today,” the changing workforce issue was front and center.

Bond writes, “Of all the conversation topics from all the workshops, the issue of the changing workforce sparked the most passionate response… Going forward, the roadmap suggests industry, academia and government join in a renewed effort to increase workforce demographics including women, workers under 35, people with disabilities and veterans.”

The question is: what kinds of successful initiatives are manufacturers making to address this issue?

By and far, the most common approaches focus on training. The kinds of training being implemented are not what one might expect, however.

In-House Training

A visible movement right now is apprenticeship. As suggested in Bond’s article, apprenticeship joins industry, academia, and sometimes even government to cultivate a new and competent workforce. (For example, you can click to read how Apprenticeship Washington targets youth for programs in several industries including manufacturing.) Companies like Boeing, Rolls Royce, Siemens, and Huntington Ingalls Industries all have apprenticeship programs. They are paid on-the-job training that can be very appealing to high school graduates.

NPR published an article, “A Different Road to Work, Bypassing College Dreams” in which author Asma Khalid focuses on 17 year-old Rebeca Espinal’s journey. Espinal was a straight-A math student who dreamed of going to a traditional four-year college. Khalid quotes, “I was planning on getting a degree in international relations, but with financial aid and how difficult it is to pay for college and everything…So when Siemens came along and gave me the offer, it was too good of an opportunity to just let it go.”

Espinal was paired with a mentor, Danny Hawkins. Khalid quotes Hawkins regarding the program: “It’s a great way for these young people to learn that there is a demand for skilled workers. Siemens has a very large workforce that’s fixing to retire, and there’s nobody to replace them.”

Another example of an innovative training program is that of Hypertherm. The company makes cutting systems for manufacturers and shipbuilders. According to Pete Fehrenbach’s Industry Week article, “Ready for the Boomer Exodus,” Hypertherm invested in an internal training center, the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute (HTTI). The initial purpose for the training center was to supplement Hypertherm’s scarce supply of skilled machinists to operate advanced CNC machines. However, HTTI has evolved over time. It targets high school graduates, has partnered with New Hampshire’s community college, and is shared with other employers. An onsite training center is a very direct and innovative approach to grooming new employees.

Invest in Leadership

Another aspect of training focuses on the employees who have the most potential to lead, whether those people are up-and-comers or already working onsite. Fehrenbach details strategies of two companies focused on training.

One of these is the Raymond Corporation. In this model, training is still focused on the high school graduates. The actual training, in addition to hands-on learning, is rich with mentorship and career development plans. The individual career planning and cross-mentoring is what makes this program unique. The Raymond Corporation identifies potential leaders and helps groom them for those roles. The article quotes the company’s executive vice president of human resources, Steve VanNostrand: “At the end of the day, it’s about enhancing the skills that will prepare you for the future. We have a particular focus on accelerating leadership skills to make sure we’ve got that next generation of leaders prepared as we begin to lose our more seasoned people.”

For manufacturers who have a large percentage of inexperienced workers, identifying and training the right leaders in the existing mix can make all the difference. The right foreman can lead his team to produce the same high-quality product that the baby boomers were making for years, regardless of the experience level of the team. This was the case for Huntington Ingalls Industries according to Fehrenbach’s article. This company found that the teams who performed most successfully had the strongest leaders – regardless of age or experience. Consequently, the company has invested in training its core leaders, and the results have been positive.

Overall, mentoring, community outreach, and investing in leaders are proving to be core ideals of successful initiatives to replace retirees. These companies offer a few of the many great examples of how to proactively implement those ideals to build a stronger future.

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