SME spearheaded a frank discussion about developing the digitally savvy professionals necessary to close the skills gap in the 21st-Century manufacturing workplace during a media roundtable Tuesday, Sept. 11, at IMTS 2018 in Chicago.
Two new SME reports intended to arm manufacturing employers with the data to implement critical operational processes that find, hire, train and retain talent fueled the discussion.
“Manufacturers need to be taking steps now to prepare themselves for the next few years, both in terms of technology and in terms of workforce training,” said SME Senior Director of Communications Christopher Barger in his opening remarks. “With these two reports … we’re helping the industry move forward.”
Among the critical findings:
Seventy-six percent of responding companies said they do not have a talent development strategy for manufacturing employees, according to the “Tooling U-SME Industry Pulse: 2018 Manufacturing Workforce Report.”
However, the same report found that 75 percent of respondents offer internships for students in manufacturing, and 69 percent support community college programs.
One-quarter of companies consider lack of corporate leadership and a strategic plan as a primary barrier to adoption of digital technologies, according to SME’s third Smart Manufacturing report, “Building Talent to Accelerate a Digital Transformation.”
“You have to build a smart workforce” to keep up with the pace of technological advancement, asserted Christine Longroy, SME’s automotive industry manager. “You need leadership, and you have to have a strategy. Once everybody understands that it will drive the results of the business … then you have a comprehensive initiative that’s going to be successful.”
Building a smart workforce is critical not only for established U.S. manufacturing operations but for those seeking to reshore.
Tooling U, SME’s training and development division, employs about 90 people who work with large and small manufacturers and educational institutions and has been at the vanguard of studying technological advances and the growing skills gap, explained Jeannine Kunz, the unit’s director.
The emerging challenges of additive manufacturing and digital factories have been superimposed on traditional machining concerns, Kunz said, but manufacturing employees’ skills haven’t necessarily kept up.
“Now you’re introducing business challenges, not just people challenges,” she cautioned—and the results of not solving for these critical changes are “potentially disastrous.”
Orchestrating significant SME workforce outreach efforts is John Hindman, director of learning and performance improvement for Tooling U-SME. His team works with U.S. manufacturers to define and build in-house worker development programs to retain incoming employees, who are increasingly demanding career growth.
“They’re not going to sit in and run the same machine for the next 30 years,” he advised. “They’re going to want to look for different opportunities within that organization.”
While community- and school-driven outreach efforts are encouraging, the onus is on manufacturers to apply good practices in developing people internally. Citing research that finds millennials decide on day one of a new job whether they will stay with a company long-term, Hindman asserted that “if you don’t have a strong onboarding program … you’re already starting to lose your audience.”
Exemplifying a progressive approach to workforce development is LAI International (Tempe, AZ), a provider of engineered, mission-critical components for the aerospace, medical device and energy industries. CEO Patrick J. (P.J.) Gruetzmacher explained that LAI has “a very structured onboarding program” that requires every associate to complete a checklist while learning about the business, its stakeholders and elements of the strategic plan.
“What I find with the millennials, more so than any other group, is that they care (about) how do they add value,” he said. LAI’s process is informed by onboarding metrics measuring such things as whether the plan was completed as prescribed.
Among Gruetzmacher’s other revelations for shaping the next-generation manufacturing workforce, based on LAI’s success:
- LAI had a retention rate of 95 percent or better, but lowered that figure to bring “new blood” into the company as technologies changed.
- LAI categorizes associates in A, B or C tiers, with A’s being developed for promotion within one to three years.
- Keep operators motivated to evolve by encouraging them to ask “What’s in it for me?” and figure out how to exploit new technologies to make their jobs easier by automating good processes. But, “you can never let somebody go because you automated,” he warned.
- “Burn the bridge behind you,” meaning: eliminate old procedures once new ones are implemented to prevent employees from falling back on previous methods.
Ultimately, while narrowing the digital skills gap is the goal, eliminating the gap isn’t necessarily desirable, Gruetzmacher advised.
“The moment that the gap (is closed), you’re done—you’re no longer continuously improving. You always want to see a gap, because it forces everybody to be on their toes.”