How to Find - and Keep - Skilled Workers
With skilled manufacturing workers in short supply, companies must be creative in attracting them and also need to start retention efforts from day one.
Debra Williams (Feb/Mar 07)

Results of the National Association of Manufacturers' recent skills gap survey probably won't surprise anyone who has staffed a manufacturing facility in the last year: good help is hard to find. About 90 percent of manufacturers polled were unable to find enough skilled workers for positions on the shop floor, including machinists, operators, and manufacturing technologists. More than 80 percent said the shortage was severe enough to impact production schedules.

As high as these numbers are, they're expected to rise even further. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that industry will be short eight million skilled workers by 2010, with that number almost doubling by 2020. And the lack of skilled labor will be felt by all areas of the country and in all sectors of manufacturing.

"America can't compete without skilled workers. Eighty percent of NAM members are having trouble finding qualified employees for today's high-tech workplace - and this problem is getting worse as the baby-boom generation retires," says John Engler, president of NAM.

"Dream It. Do It."
Engler's comments come as NAM launches the latest "Dream It. Do It." campaign - an effort to draw more students into manufacturing careers. Through this initiative, NAM wants to educate young people about the variety of careers in manufacturing and show that rewarding opportunities aren't just limited to careers in entertainment or computers.

"Too many young people have an outdated view of manufacturing and don't consider it to be an interesting or rewarding career. "Dream It. Do It." puts a real and exciting new face on today's cutting-edge manufacturing for 16-26-year-olds, their parents, and educators," says Jerry Jasinowski, president of The Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of NAM. "We've seen real success with our Kansas City pilot program, where enrollment in manufacturing-related courses at the local technical school has increased by 35 percent, and polls show a significant positive change in attitudes about manufacturing careers," Jasinowski adds.

The pilot program in Kansas City began in 2005, followed by multicounty efforts in Nebraska and Virginia. In 2007, the campaign will expand to Ohio, Texas, and Washington State. Even if your new facility isn't in one of those areas, you can still benefit from some of the strategies.

"For manufacturers opening a facility in an area, hiring doesn't just mean pulling applicants from other manufacturers. It's also a chance to draft people into an industry from other fields," explains Sandi Scannelli, a consultant with Cygnet Associates. The Maryland-based group provides advice to both companies and to nonprofit organizations involved in work force development. She thinks retail can be an excellent source of manufacturing employees.

"Manufacturing really offers so many opportunities for people who are now working in retail. The wages are better, the starting pay is usually higher, and the benefits are better. For these workers, a new facility offers a higher earning potential and a chance to get in on the ground floor of a facility," Scannelli says.

Some companies have good reason to hesitate. Past experience with nonmanufacturing people may have resulted in high rates of turnover. To avoid this, Scannelli recommends casting a very wide net, and then using good assessments and a thorough orientation process to make sure new workers are well-suited to your firm's environment.

Educating the Public
Your company may not have the resources to launch a campaign like "Dream It. Do It." Working a little public relations into your facility's opening, though, can greatly enhance the number of resumes you get from people currently employed outside manufacturing or from young people looking for a start.

Start by educating your new community about your company. Companies that are new to a community start with a clean slate. Smart companies take steps soon after a new location is announced to control what appears on that slate. The time between an announcement and the opening will actually determine the quantity and the quality of applicants.

Be as open as possible about your product and your company. Produce a short video that features a similar facility in your organization. Distribute it to high schools and career centers and share it at community events. Show the products that will be made and consider holding an open house when the facility is finished. This will demystify the manufacturing process.

"People are familiar with retail. You know what happens in a store. But, with a manufacturing facility, the general population does not know what goes on. You don't have television shows set in manufacturing facilities like we have shows set in hospitals and in courtrooms," Scannelli says.


Retention
Offering tours of your facility is also the first step of another process that's becoming very important in hiring: retention. While retention programs used to kick in at the three- or five-year employment marks, the shortage of skilled labor brings retention to the forefront. Smart employers hire with retention in mind.

For those charged with staffing new facilities, that means devoting the required time to fill each position with someone who is a good fit for the job. The same rules apply whether you're filling five positions or 500, according to one expert.

"One of the biggest reasons for turnover in any organization is a lack of clarity concerning the job requirements and expectations," says Stephen J. Blakesley, author of Strategic Hiring: Tomorrow's Benefits Today, and president of Global Management Systems, a human-resource consulting firm.

Blakesley says those in charge of staffing new facilities should begin by examining each position and developing a one-page job expectations sheet. More than just a job description, this document includes clear expectations of what is needed and the minimum acceptable standards, he explains. This document can also be used in the interviewing process - another aspect of the job search that Blakesley feels might be circumvented when hiring large numbers.

"The second reason for high turnover rates is a mismatch between the job and the person's skills. Hard skills, like CAD or computer experience, can be measured with a good assessment. Soft skills, like interpersonal skills, can show up in job interviews," Blakesley says.

"All of these steps will help a new facility start with a much better handle on employment and retention," explains Blakesley. "Yes, this does require a little extra time and a little extra expense up front. [However], consider that each hourly worker you replace during the first year will cost 1.2 times the hourly salary just in replacement cost. That doesn't include the lost productivity. A small investment on the front end pays very big dividends on the back end."

Jodie Sue Kelly, another Cygnet Associates consultant, couldn't agree more. "Retention begins on day one," she says. "The first days someone spends in your company will make the difference between an employee who stays for a year or two and someone who stays for decades."

Kelly even proposes a pre-hiring orientation. The goal is to make sure people are not surprised on the first day of work.

"It's all about managing expectations," Kelly says. When applicants know what to expect, they'll be able to make a better decision - for both themselves and for your company. No surprises should be waiting on the first day of the job. This includes everything from where they'll be eating lunch to the kind of floor they'll be standing on.

A human resource manager for a new facility - someone who needs to find 500 production workers in a few months - may be tempted to make the process as short as possible. By considering a few small adjustments to the process, however, Kelly believes the high turnover rates (and resulting production delays) that often plague a new facility can be negated.

Orienting New Hires
A complete pre-hiring orientation gives the employer a good chance to know more about potential employees; pre-hire orientations also give much more information to applicants. They're then better equipped to decide if the job is a good fit. The chances that someone will show up on the first day and permanently leave after lunch can be greatly reduced.

"A good pre-hire orientation does have some assessments built in, but they also have some group activities that give applicants a better chance to absorb some information. These orientations have better results," Scannelli says.

A pre-hire orientation should include a plant tour, a chance to talk with supervisors, and information about the company's product. The latter shouldn't just be restricted to PowerPoint slides, but should actually give employees the chance to handle products and show them the role the plant plays in the company's mission and its service to customers. If you make a valve, what does the valve do? Why is your company's valve the best? You may think that information isn't needed to inspect or to work at the shipping dock, but it does make employees feel as though they are part of a team. And that makes it more likely they'll stick around more than a few years.

To get a head start on retention, Scannelli suggests that applicants actually be given a preview of their job. Give an applicant the chance to observe the environment and the pace of work. This may not always be possible in a new facility, when hiring may begin before machines arrive. If that's the case, go back to your video.

Another possibility is to fly in a few line workers from other facilities who can describe a day on the job and answer questions. Stress the importance of honesty. When an applicant truly knows what to expect, the chances that he or she will show up for the first and second day rise dramatically.

Will these steps slow down the hiring process, perhaps even delaying the opening date of your new facility? That's not likely, according to Kelly.

"This is really a much more productive process than doing individual orientations," Kelly says. She also encourages companies to invite spouses to learn about the prospective company.

"When you're hiring a person, you are also hiring a person's support group. If I'm an employer, I want to get that person's buy-in as well," she explains.

Don't be disappointed when everyone who goes through a pre-hire orientation doesn't join the firm. The small expenditure of time involved in the orientation will be recouped in savings from reduced turnover costs.

Look At It From the Applicant's View
Finally, remember that the first round of hiring done by your company will, good or bad, establish its reputation in the community for years to come. Even applicants that are rejected should leave with a respectable opinion of your firm.

"Look closely at your process from the applicant's view. If people apply, do they get a letter or a postcard or are they just left wondering if they're going to get the job? Look at how applicants are treated as they come in. Make it feel like this is a great place to work even in the reception area and throughout the entire process," Kelly says. Even the greatest marketing campaign will fall flat if applicants don't feel welcome - even if they're just picking up an application.

Finally, here are Kelly's sure-fire ways to make employees leave on the first day:
• Don't have a work area ready.
• Let new employees figure out lunch arrangements on their own. Make sure new employees aren't included in the lunch plans of veteran employees.
• Start new employees on a day that the supervisor is on vacation.
• Let new employees stand around feeling foolish for hours at a time.
• Sit the employee in a room to read manuals and complete paperwork for hours on the first day of the job.

Remember - this is what NOT to do if you want to keep the workers who are already in short supply!

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