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Recruiting and Retaining Today’s Manufacturing Workforce

Area Development recently asked Kylene Zenk — director of the Manufacturing Practice at UKG (Ultimate Kronos Group), a leading global provider of HR services and workforce management solutions — for her input on recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce in the age of COVID-19.

Workforce Q4 2020
Workers at manufacturing firms have continued to produce the essential goods that the global community relies on.
Workers at manufacturing firms have continued to produce the essential goods that the global community relies on.
AD: How has COVID-19 changed the employee experience in manufacturing, and what facets of this should organizations retain going forward?

Zenk: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have been experiencing a drastically different work environment. Thousands of manufacturers across the U.S. and around the world were deemed essential during the pandemic, and their production lines haven’t stopped. They’ve continued to produce essential goods that the global community relies on — from the food we eat to the clothes we wear and cleaning supplies we use in our homes. As some manufacturers increased output and others reconfigured operations to satisfy urgent demands, employees had to adapt.

Their work behind the scenes has helped to ensure that others working on the frontlines — whether in hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, or other essential businesses — have had the goods and supplies they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.

For all these reasons, frontline manufacturing workers deserve more than our gratitude — they deserve all the benefits of a great employee experience: work-life balance encouraged through flexible scheduling policies; modern and mobile workplace technology that simplifies daily tasks; financial peace of mind enabled by employer-provided payroll benefits, like earned wage access; career development opportunities; a supportive manager; and so much more.

In navigating this “new normal,” many manufacturers have already cultivated a safe and engaged frontline workforce by putting these people-first practices in place. Employers have built trust and transparency within their organizations — they’ve not only improved employee engagement but also the employee experience. As we look ahead to a future without COVID-19, it’s important that these positive strides are not lost. Rather, manufacturers should continue investing in these and other critical efforts and technologies to maintain frontline employee engagement, making this part of their long-term corporate culture strategy.

AD: Manufacturing leaders seem to recognize that developing and attracting skilled talent is more important than ever, but how do we do this? What strategies can help leaders attract and engage employees?

Zenk: Manufacturing’s skilled talent shortage isn’t going away on its own. Research from the Workforce Institute at UKG found that in the 12 months prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (March 2019–2020), two-thirds of manufacturers agreed that their organization had difficulty recruiting skilled talent. Layered on top of this, around 2 in 5 said they were experiencing higher-than-average voluntary employee turnover during this period (44 percent) and saw a spike in retirements (40 percent).

But that was before COVID-19 hit. Now, we are in a period where the pandemic has accelerated the need for manufacturers to focus on their people. Adopting strategies to develop and attract skilled talent and to optimize the existing manufacturing workforce is more important than ever.

Manufacturers need to double down on their efforts to demonstrate why talented individuals should come to work for them versus a competitor or in another field. Manufacturers need to double down on their efforts to demonstrate why talented individuals should come to work for them versus a competitor or in another field. And, when thinking about attracting the future workforce, a great place to start is to engage the current workforce. Internal referrals are often the best recruitment tool, so creating a great experience for today’s employees will support recruitment efforts in the end. With the availability of social media and sites like Glassdoor, it’s becoming more and more critical that manufacturers take steps to positively influence the narrative being told by their greatest brand ambassadors.

Consider also that the average consumer has probably experienced the impact of supply chain disruption for the first time this year — when they couldn’t find the cleaning supplies or personal care products they wanted on the grocery store shelves. In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the critical and meaningful role of manufacturing into focus for many. And with this newly favorable perception certainly comes an opportunity for the industry to accelerate its efforts to build awareness and educate the next generation of workers (i.e., students) about the incredible career potential in modern manufacturing.

Finally, employee engagement — which Gallup finds is particularly low among manufacturing workers — needs to become more of a central focus. A good place to start is to prioritize professional development and knowledge-transfer initiatives, like upskilling, cross-training, apprenticeships, and mentorships.

Keep in mind that frontline workers in manufacturing may now also be feeling a greater sense of purpose and pride in their work and looking for ways to advance in their careers. We’ve all witnessed the incredible impact that this collective has had in helping our nation get through the early months of this pandemic intact — but they’ve lived it. Many are now seeing first-hand how the products that they help produce benefit the global community. Take this opportunity to amplify employees’ sense of pride and help them grow with your company.

AD: The manufacturing industry has been battling a skilled-labor shortage for years. Have we made any headway?

Zenk: Yes, I’m confident that we have made progress. With each manufacturing organization to embrace digital transformation, our industry advances forward. Today, modern manufacturing offers a wealth of exciting and lucrative career opportunities for skilled members of the workforce, as well as incoming Gen Z talent.

We’ve also seen manufacturers embracing new, successful strategies to overcome the challenges of recruiting talent in a tight labor market. Over the 12 months preceding the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Workforce Institute at UKG found that many manufacturers were taking steps to strategically diversify their candidate pool by recruiting individuals with nontraditional experience — e.g., veterans, second-chance workers, individuals graduating from nonprofit job placement programs, persons with disabilities or special needs, refugees, retirees, and others (see full breakdown on page 10 of the report from the Workforce Institute). And, in fact, 81 percent said this approach helped to directly address their organization’s skilled labor shortage.

AD: When we connected last year, you shared with Area Development’s readers the importance of engaging and meeting the diverse needs of a multigenerational workforce. Flash-forward 12 action-packed months: Are there any new considerations to take into account?

Zenk: In the COVID era, all generations of the workforce are facing a totally new set of challenges at work and at home. For employers, meeting the needs of the workforce means being flexible and understanding when an employee — a parent — has to rearrange her work schedule to accommodate her child’s new virtual school routine. Or when an older worker — perhaps with a pre-existing condition that makes him/her more susceptible to the virus — requests to work from home, or to come into work during the second or third shift to minimize contact with others.

Or maybe you’ve recently hired a high school graduate — who doesn’t have a lot of savings in the bank and has just leased a new car. Instead of feeling anxious about being able to pay his bills, that employee should be able to grab his mobile device and pick up a few extra work shifts; look at his scheduling preferences and expand his availability so that managers can fit him into the schedule more easily; and maybe he can even sign up for early access to his earned wages using the suite of financial wellness tools provided by his employer.

Today’s manufacturing workforce is diverse, with employees spanning many different stages of life. Even though we’re all living through COVID-19 together, each generation is experiencing the crisis differently. Keep in mind that the employee experience cannot be one-size-fits-all.

AD: Diversity issues are now important in satisfying workforce needs. How can employers lean in on these topics to enrich the employee experience?

Zenk: Just as it’s important to recognize that the workforce has a diverse makeup of different generations, many other demographics can come into play. It’s important to consider how your organization can embrace and celebrate diversity among its workforce and create opportunities to include and elevate the voices and identities of employees from all backgrounds. Doing so will create a more inclusive and equitable environment for all.

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