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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.

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"Too many young people have an outdated view of manufacturing and don't consider it to be an interesting or rewarding career.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.

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