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Breaking Badly

In March 2013, a Manufacturing Leadership Council survey was conducted by Frost & Sullivan with 226 manufacturers.[1]  The survey’s intent was to understand manufacturers’ current workforce strategies, ask about future strategies, and observe key trends.  Specifically, the authors wanted to know more about the availability of production-level employees.  Well, they found out. And it didn’t look good. Survey respondents said they currently have trouble finding qualified workers and they expect this unsettling trend to continue over the next 5 to 10 years.  The skills the respondents want in production employees include: engineering, technical, management, and computer science, in that order.  They also want functional skills such as analytics, computer proficiency, lean, six sigma, advanced materials, logistics, supply chain, design, sales, industrial networking and collaboration.   Whew!  That is quite a list.   I’ll bet those manufacturers have done some serious planning for their operations’ workforces.

Surprise!  They have not!  Less than one-third had conducted formal workforce planning to identify their long-term positions and skills needs.  Thirty-nine percent said their planning, to date, has been informal, and twenty-two percent said they base their workforce strategies on market conditions.

Without reducing people to automatons, I think it’s time to stop making up catch-as-catch-can workforce strategies and systematize them.  Workforce is a system, like other systems in a business.  Like production. Like distribution. Like technology.  Sure, there’s that “human” element, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage it analytically and link workforce investments to successful business outcomes.  It’s not only about wages, benefits and training expenditures. It’s way more than that.

Here at NIST MEP we are developing a cloud-based talent management system called SMARTalent that will help manufacturers analyze and benchmark their workforce investment strategies.  SMARTalent will be used for job profiling, want ads, business/workforce diagnostics, competency and skill identification, work flow planning, lay-off aversion and succession planning, and will automate functions for these activities.  SMARTalent will take workforce planning and investing to a whole new level, even as manufacturers continue to make inroads in the short term.

For example, the Iowa MEP, CIRAS, worked with Marzetti Frozen Pasta Inc. to help educate their management team about how to take advantage of current market demands and be better prepared for increased business. Working with their human resource manager, CIRAS developed an informal needs assessment and identified multiple opportunities for collaboration and training that would benefit Marzetti’s diverse workplace.  Results were outstanding:

  • $20,000 rate of return on training investments
  • Lower employee turnover
  • Increased productivity
  • Higher employee engagement
  • Saved $10,000 in direct cost

Training is not a panacea for every problem, of course, but training integrated within a broader and deeper strategy aligning skilled positions with business targets can really deliver a bang for the buck.  And given the expectation that the future workforce will be highly mobile within production facilities, it only seems logical to make sure you’ve really thought about and planned for that time.[2]  For more workforce success stories, visit the MEP website.  For more information about MEP’s SMARTalent, visit our workforce webpage.

[1] Brousell, David, et al. The Manufacturing Workforce: A Deepening Crisis.  Frost & Sullivan. March 2013.
[2] Ibid. Forty percent of respondents to the survey indicated that there was a high likelihood of a highly mobile production workforce with greater use of automation.

About the author

Stacey Wagner

Guest blogger Stacey Jarrett Wagner has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.

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