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Manufacturers Share Views on Leadership from the Pandemic Shop Floor

Senior partners walking and using digital tablet at warehouse with face masks
Credit: iStock/FG Trade

As a kid I used to be confused by the so-called curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Wouldn’t interesting times be … good? Why would I not want to be interested? Then I got a little older, experienced a little more life, and I started to understand why “interesting times” could be a negative. Then the pandemic happened, and I began to wish for stable, comfortable and predictable days in a way I never had before. There are always unknowns, risks and challenges you can’t see coming, but the current health situation was so far outside my calculations it might as well have come from another solar system.

National Conversations with Manufacturers

It turns out I’m not alone. Manufacturers describe the months since the pandemic started, altered daily life worldwide and threatened normal business operations as a test of leadership. And the test, they say, has been exhausting.

That’s the message six manufacturing executives had for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) in the first of a series of conversations we call the “National Conversation with Manufacturers” about how manufacturers have been weathering the pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. This series of 11 virtual listening sessions were geared toward discerning how best to support manufacturers in the current environment of uncertainty and beyond.

Participants in the conversations that started in late July report scrambling to source the materials they needed to keep making and shipping product, to stockpile cash reserves so they are positioned to survive slowing sales and to rethink production processes to comply with social distancing guidelines, all while reassuring employees with safety protocols and responding to health challenges.

Workforce Challenges

Workforce challenges have been common among manufacturers over the past several years, but conversation participants say COVID-19 has put concern for employees front and center in new and more profound ways. They described a nervous and fearful workforce worried about their own safety on the job, the health of loved ones at home and the economic well-being of the company and customers that sustain their jobs.

Several say they have sought to counter employees’ concerns about their health and job security through education and information. They have shared the latest details about the disease, its spread and mitigation recommendations and requirements. Some have opened their books to assure workers that the company is stable and has the liquidity to weather the storm.

Beyond allaying fears, manufacturing leaders have found that the pandemic has created a resource planning burden. When employees can’t come to work because they need to quarantine due to travel or exposure to the virus or because they can’t find childcare when schools are closed, their absence is particularly problematic in lean manufacturing operations. Manufacturing leaders find themselves addressing these safety and scheduling concerns while also making decisions and taking the steps needed to withstand economic decline. Their priorities have been managing cash resources, pushing out product and looking for opportunities to develop new products, pursue partnerships and gain new customers.

You’re Not Alone

Opportunities for manufacturers to share their experiences, learn from each other and even vent their frustrations have been invaluable in helping them know they are not alone as they navigate these uncertain times. One manufacturer described the MEP CEO forum she participates in as her “group therapy.” The 15 or so participants met weekly online when the pandemic began, providing support, sharing their experiences and struggles in implementing changing guidelines on procedures and worker protections.

Participants in the conversation said the 51 MEP Centers within the MEP National NetworkTM should engage more broadly with manufacturers, focusing particularly on smaller operations, to make them aware of available resources and to identify common current “pain points” that the Network could provide help in addressing. These may include support for developing strategy, adding capacity and upskilling workers in the area of advanced manufacturing.

The MEP National Network can also play a vital role in identifying and growing a pool of manufacturing talent. Despite the widespread spike in unemployment that followed public health lockdowns and economic downturns, roundtable participants say they continue to struggle to find workers with the skills they need or even have interests that align with manufacturing jobs.

Leadership Support

At a time when many manufacturing executives are feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin, the Network could offer the leadership support to keep them focused on “the next practical thing that matters most” and help them plan for a post-pandemic future. That sounds beneficial and to be honest, plenty interesting to me.

The MEP National Network is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. We’re here to continue our mission to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers and our mission is now more important than ever. Connect with your local MEP Center to learn how you can succeed in a changing world.

About the author

Mark Schmit

Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), since 1988, has been committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing, continually evolving to meet the changing needs of manufacturers. As division chief for regional and state partnerships, Mark is the lead for division policy and has assisted in the development of programs supporting manufacturing and industrial extension technology-based economic development, and entrepreneurship practices with state elected officials and policy makers, including the MEP policy academies, which were designed by MEP and partners to help states build upon existing strategies, leverage available resources, and spur creative new ideas about how to address major challenges or leverage opportunities around the manufacturing sector.  Mark is responsible for developing partnerships with both the public and private sector entities. He was an MEP co-lead for the creation of MFG Day, an outreach program held on the first Friday in October to show students, parents, and the public what modern manufacturing is all about, with growing annual participation across the United States. Mark was a 2001, 2005, 2014, and 2020 recipient of NIST’s George Uriano Award.  The George Uriano Award recognizes outstanding achievements by NIST staff in building and strengthening NIST extramural programs and partnerships.

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