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Robert Means


Manufacturing and the Millennial Workforce

The perfect marriage?

Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 12:03

Manufacturing is an industry in flux. Characterized by increasing pressure from global competitors, the impact of new technologies, Industry 4.0, and the “smart factory,” the face of manufacturing is changing drastically for the better. In a recent manufacturing outlook survey from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 94.6 percent of respondents believe their company’s outlook is positive coming out of the fourth quarter of 2017, and growth is expected in all categories.

Changing this perception into a reality is not without its challenges. Increases in automation, potentially positive legislative changes, and economic growth have caused increased demand and highlight a critical issue in the growing labor shortage. In fact, attracting and retaining a quality workforce is first on the list of current business challenges for 72.9 percent of respondents. More than 30 percent of respondents recognize that this lack of qualified labor is responsible for lost revenue opportunities.

According to this survey, organizations are addressing this shortage of qualified workers in several ways, including:
• Work the existing workforce more: 66.6 percent
• Create or expand internal training programs: 64.5 percent
• Work with educational institutions on skills certification programs: 56.5 percent
• Utilize temporary staffing services: 55.4 percent

Of the four, only one of these methods will have a lasting, positive impact on the problem. To properly address this issue in the long term, we must first understand the driving forces behind it. Today’s current shortage of skilled workers did not happen overnight. Multiple factors converged at once to escalate and intensify the issue. The critical question remains: How can manufacturers seize unfolding opportunities when the existing workforce is stretched past capacity, and open positions are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants?

Look at the top influencing factors first:
The aging population. Workers that made the post-war, industrial era thrive are now reaching retirement age. And we have not hit the peak yet. An aging population means fewer workers available for employment.
Not enough STEM graduates. Education experienced a shift in focus away from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses and toward liberal arts programs. This 20-year pendulum swing generated fewer design engineering graduates. There just are not enough to go around.
The lost art of vocational schools, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. These programs, once a critical part of sustaining the workforce, have faded away. They have been replaced by the perception that a four-year degree from a traditional university is the only route to a rewarding career.
Manufacturing has lost its luster. Today’s workers tend to think manufacturing plants are dark, dirty, scary places in which to work for long hours, with rigid schedules, and little to no access to the modern technologies we carry around in our pockets.

What can manufacturers do?

Some of these factors, such as the aging population, are simply beyond our control. Changing perceptions and educating the public are major endeavors that will take the collective efforts of many groups helping to portray the industry in its best possible light.

Some of these factors can be tackled by manufacturers. For example, reviving apprenticeships. Manufacturers can enact programs to upskill existing workers, initiate cross-training sessions, and mentor recent graduates. To truly impact this problem long-term, we need to better understand the largest population of workers available and their expectations for employment. Enter the millennials.

Put technology to use

Millennials grew up in the age of rapidly advancing technology and this provides an element of comfort, and an opportunity for engagement, retention, and flexibility that manufacturing’s legacy applications cannot provide. Adopting these technologies has the potential to generate a resurgent interest in the manufacturing industry if properly leveraged.

Technology gives manufacturers several options to better engage with this millennial workforce and the generations that follow. These require adopting a new way of thinking about how we manage this workforce and yet also has immense, positive operational impact. Examples include:

Demand-based workforce optimization. Stretch current resources further, making the current workforce as productive and efficient as possible. This is accomplished by understanding the impact of supply, demand, machines, manpower, skills, and cost, while considering other factors such as labor efficiency, performance, and scheduling preferences. This increases both job satisfaction in the workforce and flexibility in the deployment of labor to achieve maximum efficiency.

Mobility solutions. Give your workforce access to real-time data in their area of responsibility 24/7. Not being bound by the desk or terminal within the four walls allows productivity to skyrocket and provides the opportunity to proactively address issues before they happen. This is no longer optional. Full-time access is how millennials live and how they expect to be able to work.

Communication. Communication is critical. Give employees the chance to have a career and a life. Provide the ability to adjust schedules, book off a shift, trade shifts, and communicate leave. This is a scary thought for some, but modern technologies will allow you to automate the backfill process considering things like skills, certifications, compliance, and overtime—eliminating the need to pay for additional workers and ensuring you are always staffed efficiently. This process eliminates paper, production lag, and wasted manager time while increasing employee job satisfaction by 12 percent.

Work the way we live. Workers today expect to find the same technology in their workplace as they use in their everyday lives. They expect the software they use to be as intuitive as their phones, and as insightful as the ecommerce sites they visit. Outdated workforce management solutions with cumbersome user interfaces or manual, paper-based processes will frustrate employees.

Although the shortage of skilled workers will not be resolved quickly, manufacturers can take steps to alleviate the critical symptoms by providing modern tools to their workforce. It starts with showing employees and job candidates there is an interest in empowering them with access and flexibility. In return, you will receive highly-engaged workers who produce more efficiently, which will in turn decrease turnover and create a more attractive work environment.


About The Author

Robert Means’s picture

Robert Means

Robert Means is Vice President, Workforce Management Suite at Infor. With more than a decade of hands on experience working with the largest most diverse organizations in the world, Means is truly passionate about HCM and what it can do for an organization that is prepared to affect positive change for their workforce.