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Tackling the Talent Gap

Many companies complain about a lack of skilled manufacturing workers. Andrew Logan is tackling the problem head-on to keep his company’s talent pipeline full.

How do you attract skilled workers?

It sounds obvious, but the biggest challenge in attracting skilled machinists and other talented workers is creating an environment where people want to come to work. First, the physical surroundings matter, from workstations that are clean and attractive — not cluttered and disorganized — to large windows throughout our manufacturing facility that let in natural light. It’s more expensive and may not seem important, but it is for the workers and pays in the long run.

People also want to work as part of a collaborative team, not in a command-and-control environment. That makes communication critical. Every Monday morning we walk-through our facility and discuss one-on-one issues like safety, production schedules, and maintenance — everything a machinist needs to do the best possible job. Fridays we meet as a group to cover key performance indicators like quality, throughput, and on-time performance as well as company sales and financial updates. Our workers have a keen interest in learning how our customers use our products. It really hits home why quality is so important. Without good people in our manufacturing facility, our whole business is really challenged.

Where do you find these employees?

Recent immigrants, for one. There are countries that stayed the course with their trade apprenticeship programs. This has been a windfall for U. S. companies that have positioned themselves to be attractive employers to people seeking better opportunities. Much of our hiring comes through word of mouth. Our employees recognize this is a good place to work, and send their friends here.

What about U. S. kids?

In the late 60s and early 70s, there was a shift away from shop class and the trades in the public-education system. That really shot us in the foot. Graduates of those schools were skilled, knowledgeable, productive, and successful. They really enjoyed the work. The current education system is geared toward white-collar jobs, not manufacturing. And now, with many manufacturing experts approaching retirement, there is no one ready to take their place.

It’s a matter of exposure. Mechanically inclined kids who know about manufacturing feel this is a pretty “gee-whiz” career. It’s become more of a high-tech profession, where operators are programming machines and robots. They’re really craftsmen, working with their hands and minds like artists — creating intricate parts out of a solid chunk of metal.

So we continuously look for people with a mechanical aptitude, the folks who liked to take things apart at a young age and preferred to build go-carts versus play video games. We give them the opportunity to advance their skills.

So the training burden is on you?

Correct. We don’t have a formal apprenticeship program, but there’s a tremendous amount of on-the-job training. Small companies are now niche players in specialized industries with a lot of know-how within their walls. Employees only learn the necessary skills through in-house training and hands-on experience.

The downside is that it’s expensive. You’re covering the salaries of the trainees and trainers while they’re not producing goods and contributing to the bottom line. It’s really a double whammy because in manufacturing, you have to produce to remain competitive.

One bright spot is Tooling U, the online training program founded by Jack Schron of Jergens Industries and now run by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. It brings the classroom to the company, so employees can take courses at their convenience and pace while they’re at work or home. And they have the opportunity to immediately put the newly acquired knowledge to use on the shop floor. Tooling U may well be the future of manufacturing-technology training in the U. S.

Sounds like maintaining a skilled workforce is a lot of work?

It’s a matter of committing your own company resources to bridge that gap — the 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration model which is not unfamiliar to small-business owners and entrepreneurs. Much of what we accomplish here is based on our drive to be the best manufacturer of air/fluid industrial clutches in the mobile, marine, and industrial markets. Nothing gets handed to you in manufacturing — it’s earned, never given.

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