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Manufacturers – Stop Pushing the “Easy Button” on Your Workforce

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Credit: iStock/Mücahiddin Şentürk

This blog is part of a monthly series brought to you by the America Works initiative. As a part of the MEP National Network’s goal of supporting the growth of small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, this series focuses on innovative approaches and uncovering the latest trends in manufacturing workforce development.

I get it, we all love the “easy” button. Whether it’s ordering groceries for delivery today, household items for delivery tomorrow, or a ride to the airport via a tap on your phone, we’ve gotten used to convenience and simplicity when it comes to solving problems.

Which is why solving the manufacturing workforce crisis has been so hard: No same-day delivery, e-commerce platform, or ridesharing app alone can help us recruit and retain the two million manufacturing workers we need. Long-term fixes require systemic changes that I’ve written about on this blog before. But within companies today, manufacturers that are weathering the workforce storm and focusing on workplace development rather than workforce development, have jettisoned the “easy” button and focused on the “effective” button: long-term, transformational strategies that will help them become employers of choice.

What’s Working in Workforce

In the two years since the launch of America Works, I’ve visited numerous manufacturers, and interviewed more than 150 professionals across the MEP National NetworkTM to find out what’s working in workforce. The following list, which is by no means comprehensive, is just a snapshot gleaned from employers that have realized that you can’t buy a better workforce online; instead, you have to cultivate it from the inside with meaningful, effective long-term interventions.

“Easy” Button “Effective” Button
Gimmicky bonuses, pulse surveys, and giveaways meant to “juice” short-term productivity or distract from real worker morale issues Meaningful gestures that let your workers know you actually care, support them, and are working to enhance worker dignity and job quality. And the even more advanced version: giving workers more power and autonomy over the company, including partial ownership, seems to be the future of work.
Paid referral bonuses for new employees Become an employer of choice through an intentional focus on improving your work culture. This means tackling inclusive excellence in a serious, concerted way. It also means focusing on your employee experience as much as (or more than!) you focus on your customer experience. We’ve written extensively on how to become an employer of choice on this blog.
Onboarding is a massive information dump meant to get people on the floor as soon as possible Onboarding is a chance to welcome a new associate and give them a sense of belonging. This is the chance to start their formal mentorship, introduce them to their new buddy in the plant, and give them the chance to better understand the company, its purpose and its culture.
Traditional advertising with billboards, newspapers, and online job sites Traditional advertising mixed with intentional expansion of your networks through outreach to diverse populations (including those with unique abilities). Effective companies don’t just launch TikTok channels because that’s where young people are these days; they also build relationships with their local engineering societies, high schools and chambers of commerce to broaden their talent pipelines.
“Suggestion Box” “Action Box” – leadership reviews and responds to suggestions immediately, and closes the loop on 100% of suggestions, so employees feel heard and respected by company management.
Leadership walks the plant floor, discusses how great their culture is Leadership and employees take the Job Quality Assessment, providing an objective analysis using the eight aspects of a great company culture.
Putting out flyers with career paths, future salary ranges and career advancement opportunities Having individual conversations with your employees on their career goals – even outside your company – and then offering tuition pre-imbursement so they can advance their skills without waiting for your reimbursement.
Hazard reporting Psychological safety reporting. Ask your employees about how they feel at work. Do they feel comfortable reporting issues? Do they have a friend at work? Do they see themselves there in a year? Asking these and other research-backed questions lead to a more engaged workforce.

I mentioned these aren’t easy, but you don’t have to go this path alone. If you’d like help implementing any of these, make sure to reach out to your local MEP Center!

About the author

Matt Fieldman

Matthew Fieldman is currently Executive Director of America Works, a nationwide initiative to coordinate the American manufacturing industry's training efforts, generating a more capable, skilled, and diverse workforce. Based at MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network, Matt works across the nation's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) system to increase collaboration, efficiency, and impact of local and regional workforce development efforts.

Previously, he was Vice President of External Affairs for MAGNET, a nonprofit that helps Northeast Ohio’s small- and medium-sized manufacturers grow locally while competing globally. In this role, he launched the Ohio Manufacturing Survey; mspire, a regional startup pitch competition; helped launch manufacturing apprenticeships for inner-city youth; and is responsible for fundraising, legislative relations, media relations, and more. Concurrently, Matthew is the founding Board Chair of EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute, Cleveland's first nonprofit restaurant and one of the first of its kind nationally to train formerly incarcerated individuals to work in fine dining. He raised over $600,000 to start EDWINS and was named “2014 Fundraiser of the Year” by Fundraising Success magazine for his efforts. He is also the founder of Cleveland Codes, one of the nation's first nonprofit software bootcamps devoted specifically to training low-income adults for careers in technology. Originally from Orlando, Florida, Matt earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, cum laude, from the University of Florida, a Master of Business Administration from The George Washington University, and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Case Western Reserve University. He is a former Ariane de Rothschild and American Council on Germany Transatlantic Fellow, and is currently a Civil Society Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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