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Matt Fieldman


Workplace Development Is the New Workforce Development

In addition to attraction and recruitment, U.S. manufacturers must also focus on keeping and cultivating the workers they already have

Published: Tuesday, July 20, 2021 - 11:02

This article is the fourth in 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.

Growing up, my parents used to always joke that we needed a money tree to provide endless funding for my many expensive tastes.

Today, U.S. manufacturers joke that they need a “skilled workers tree,” where they can endlessly grow qualified workers to fill their open advanced manufacturing roles. We know from a recent Deloitte study that U.S. manufacturers will need 2.1 million qualified workers by 2030. And this shortage will only grow worse, as 69 percent of manufacturers are looking to reshore production to North America.

Given that we can’t grow smart, motivated workers on trees—at least, not yet—how can America’s small and medium-sized manufacturers (SMMs) fill their open positions?

employee being shown what to doCredit: iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Cultivating workers

In lieu of some genetic wizardry that magically develops that elusive “skilled workers tree,” one answer is to redirect our efforts away from workforce development to focus instead on workplace development. In addition to a focus on attraction and recruitment, American manufacturers must also focus on keeping and cultivating the workers they already have. There is an urgent need to improve our people development systems to a point where our efforts to attract, train, and retain people create an environment that values people for their personalities and qualities, not just their productivity.

In the workforce world, we would typically call this becoming an “employer of choice.” Accomplishing this lofty goal has always been the result of a deliberate and holistic strategy that ensures your current workers feel a sense of belonging and purpose. In today’s environment, these are fast becoming the expectation of high-quality talent. A business will know it has reached that legendary “employer of choice” status when it sees improved metrics related directly to its people, such as increased productivity, reduced waste, and lower absenteeism and turnover. You’ll see it in your teams too. This type of environment will also help to unleash the whole team’s creativity and problem-solving capabilities, improving the organization’s overall competitiveness. At companies like these, not only do employees think twice before quitting, but they also become active ambassadors and recruiters for their employer.

MEP centers help turn cultures into a competitive advantage

Currently, MEP centers nationwide offer a wide range of consulting and hands-on assistance to help manufacturers turn their cultures into a competitive advantage. America Works, with its four goals designed to strengthen the MEP National Network’s workforce development efforts, will launch an internal discussion node this fall devoted to sharing best practices in this exact area. Across the network, MEP centers are actively working with SMMs to strengthen all aspects of their internal environments, including the following.

Quality jobs: Forget the perception of manufacturing as “the three Ds”—dark, dirty, and dangerous. Today’s manufacturing jobs are the four Cs—cool, challenging, creative, and cutting edge. Much research has been conducted on quality jobs, with clear frameworks for creating them. The Illinois MEP center, IMEC, even partnered with two universities to prove that a focus on quality jobs led to tangible business results. Are you leveraging that expertise?

Culture: Do your employees feel welcomed and valued every day? Are your supervisors equipped to communicate in ways that keep your best people? Have you thoughtfully integrated diversity, equity, and inclusion into all aspects of your workplace?

Systems thinking: How well is your people development system working? The system consists of five functional areas—recruiting, onboarding, retention, performance management, and the anchor of them all, training. In a well-functioning, continuously improving system, all these areas will complement each other. In other words, you’re investing in your equipment, capital, and automation in a deliberate, methodical manner, but are you investing in your people in that same clear and thoughtful manner, through programs like tuition reimbursement, onsite training, or subsidized certifications?

Career pathways: Do your workers see a clear future for themselves at your company, where they will develop increased skills, responsibilities, and of course, salaries? Have you seriously considered apprenticeships as a way of developing your workers over the long haul?

Manufacturers struggling to recruit and retain workers need not fight this battle alone. Across the country, MEP centers are tackling worker retention through a wide variety of offerings such as:
• Leadership training programs to ensure your supervisors have the best communication and collaboration skills (like this one, created by Arkansas Manufacturing Solutions, the Arkansas MEP center)
• CEO roundtables for sharing best practices across local companies
• Assistance with launching youth and adult apprenticeships
• Holistic assessments that identify and address cultural challenges, including real-time employee feedback that leads to data analytics (Check out what Catalyst Connection, part of Pennsylvania MEP, does in this area here.)
• Onsite training that builds your internal culture, ensuring every worker feels valued as they grow their skills and capabilities (like this one from Michigan’s MMTC, the Michigan MEP center)

So if you want to better retain your workers, stop paying for classified ads, social media posts, and expensive staffing agencies. Instead, contact your local MEP center and start focusing on workplace development.

It’s a lot easier than growing that fabled skilled worker tree.

First published June 30, 2021, on NIST’s Manufacturing Innovation Blog.


About The Author

Matt Fieldman’s picture

Matt Fieldman

Matt Fieldman is 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, Fieldman 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.