Manufacturers compete for workers in a hot economy

For the first time since 1997, U.S. manufacturers are optimistic about the industry and their business growth prospects. They expect increases in hiring, sales, production and wages, among other areas, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Manufacturers.

Among the 568 respondents, 95 percent registered a positive outlook for their companies – the highest level recorded in the survey’s 20-year history. The Trump administration’s tax cuts and pro-business policy changes are likely fueling the upbeat responses, the association surmises.

The expected growth rate for full-time employment from June 2018 to June 2019 is 3.1 percent based on the survey – an all-time high. More than 66 percent of respondents anticipate a hiring uptick through June 2019, with the most notable growth seen among medium-sized companies.

While they’re bullish about hiring, U.S. manufacturers are struggling to attract and retain a quality workforce in a tightening labor market – a challenged cited as their top concern in the association survey.

Recent data suggests there are more job openings than people looking for work, the association reported. Manufacturers are competing with one another for the same pool of talent.

“It’s a job seeker’s market right now,” says Robyn DeLavergne, human resources, at Haumiller Engineering Co., which designs and makes high-speed automated assembly equipment in South Elgin, Illinois. “Everyone is hiring, and we all need the same type of skilled workers that there is simply not enough of.”

The tight labor market may not be the only factor that’s making it difficult to fill openings.

Manufacturing has a longstanding public relations problem, says Donna Bolsega, director of human resources at Flavorchem Corp. in Downers Grove, Illinois. The company provides flavor and color solutions for the food, beverage and nutraceutical industries.

“We need to change the way people think about manufacturing; it’s not a dead-end job,” Bolsega says. “The future outlook for manufacturing is bright, with ample career and growth opportunities.”

Young people have been raised to believe that factory careers are undesirable. The stigma makes job candidates view manufacturing as a stopgap rather than a long-term employment opportunity. Real-life examples, however, show the opposite is true.

“We’ve had employees start at entry level and work up to management,” Bolsega says. “A member of our executive team started on the shop floor.”

Turning the tide

As they ramp up production, manufacturers are seeking blue- and white-collar workers at all levels. Some of the biggest opportunities are in aerospace, vehicles, equipment and machinery, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and high-tech devices, the McKinsey Global Institute reported.

“It’s looking really bright for the shop floor,” says Lisa Eisenstat, director of global talent acquisition for Hickory, North Carolina-based CommScope, which makes telecom equipment. “We’re seeing the most growth for technicians, operators and assemblers.”

Haumiller Engineering is experiencing a similar trend.

“Skilled machine builders – both electrical and mechanical – are in demand right now,” DeLavergne says. “We’re seeing growth in hiring for service technicians, who have capabilities in machine building, testing and troubleshooting, now more than ever. As our technology advances, so does our need for high-level technicians.”

Some reports suggest that entry-level manufacturing positions are all but gone and that companies want workers who think like engineers and are technologically sophisticated. The McKinsey Global Institute concludes that tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs may have advanced digital skill requirements.

Perry Sainati, founder and president of Belden Universal Joints in Hillside, Illinois, agrees. The company makes complex joints, drive-shaft assemblies and couplings.

“In this day and age, companies like mine simply cannot afford to pay top dollar for workers whose skill sets don’t extend beyond the ability to spot weld a piece of metal or maybe torque down a bolt or two,” he says.

But manufacturers are realistic about candidates’ skills, particularly those that make highly customized products, including Haumiller Engineering. Eighty percent of the company’s equipment is custom-made, making it a necessity to provide extensive employee training. It takes at least a year before new hires are up to speed, DeLavergne says.

Flavorchem also provides comprehensive training as a long-term investment in its workforce.

“Very rarely do we hire people who have a significant background in chemical compounding,” Bolsega says. “We can teach you how to do this if you have attention to detail and you want to learn.”

At Belden Universal Joints, operators are considered entry level, but Sainati prefers candidates who have experience with machine tools. He notes that every employee on the factory floor at his company uses a tablet.

“People have to be able to think; they have to have math skills; and they need to be able communicate fresh ideas,” he says.

Advanced positions

As for white-collar jobs, CommScope has high demand for quality improvement positions, including quality managers and directors.

High-level management positions are among the hardest to fill at Belden Universal Joints.

“I’ve been looking for a general manager for three or four years,” Sainati says. “I’m thrilled that my son – after his stint in investment banking and tech – recently accepted the job.”

DeLavergne struggles to find quality electrical and software engineers.

“It’s extremely difficult to staff that group,” she says. “Skilled candidates are few and they tend to stay loyal to their employers.”

Recruitment and workforce planning

In the past, manufacturers posted job ads and waited for candidates to apply. They don’t have that luxury anymore. They’re continuously on the hunt for skilled employees and are working to create a steady pipeline of young talent.

“We’re using sophisticated and highly targeted advertising and marketing to promote openings, such as geofencing,” Eisenstat says.

CommScope also connects with prospective employees through LinkedIn and other social media channels and taps industry associations, business organizations, trade schools and job fairs for candidates.

“We go to more places; we search harder; and we make sure our message is clear,” Eisenstat says.

Recruiting at colleges, vocational institutions and veterans’ groups is a popular strategy at other companies. Some manufacturers are partnering with local high schools and community colleges to train a new generation of workers who are excited about manufacturing.

They’re also investing in behind-the scenes videos and stories to stand out.

“We’re working on promotional videos and other marketing that shows who we are and what manufacturing is all about,” Sainati says. “It’s all new – and it changes so fast.”

Investing for the future

Most manufacturers invest in leadership training, performance management and skills training to keep good workers. Employees stay longer when they have opportunities for growth and development.

Flavorchem reimburses tuition for employees who’ve been with the company for one year.

“Several people who started on the factory floor are now in research and development, regulatory compliance, and accounting,” Bolsega says. “We also have employees who have had successful careers in manufacturing for over 20 years.”

CommScope recently launched “uLead,” a self-paced training program that focuses on development for all employees. More than 1,200 workers signed up for the program in July.

The company also offers free classes through its online “Global LearnCenter,” where employees can learn foreign languages, computer programs, engineering skills and a variety of other subjects. Employees completed more than 16,000 courses between January and June.

“You can choose your own course anytime you want and managers can assign classes to employees,” says LaShawn Gallimore, director of human resources for the Americas at CommScope.

Manufacturers are also working to improve employee engagement. Happy workers tend to stick around.

Flavorchem’s employee engagement team plans activities such as employee appreciation events, food truck visits and holiday parties. The company also holds biannual meetings to solicit feedback and hosts a monthly “Snacks with the President” event for rotating groups of employees.

“We want our employees to know they have a voice,” Bolsega says. “Finding skilled employees is difficult enough, so it’s essential to keep the team we have.”

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