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Winning the Talent War Requires Forging Compelling New Vision

Of all the insights that have come out of the pandemic, the most ironic might be from the manufacturing sector. At the height of the crisis, manufacturing employees were lauded as “essential workers.” In the aftermath of that praise, many employees now feel their day-to-day work is not sufficiently fulfilling or valued.

As employees reappraise their lives and work, manufacturers need to undergo their own deep soul-searching. As they look for talent, companies must determine how they can enrich rather than detract from employees’ lives and become “employers of choice.” Companies must make employees feel essential, and find ways for employees to find purpose and joy in their day-to-day.

To do this, manufacturers need to re-imagine the role of both supervisors and employees; rethink how they recruit and onboard workers; and forge a compelling vision that employees can embrace and contribute to in tangible ways. Coming up with solutions to this multifaceted challenge could be the difference between succeeding and failing in the decade ahead.

Beyond “Clock-In, Clock-Out”

The war for talent has been well-documented. Manufacturing is on the front lines of that war as the industry shifts from low-skill to high-skill. By 2030, 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled, according to Deloitte Consulting. Manufacturing recruiters know that getting entry-level workers, such as team assemblers and hand-held tool cutters, to even knock on the door, let alone come through it, is a challenge. Finding welders, maintenance technicians, and other skilled workers is even more difficult. 

Nearly two-thirds of US workers said the pandemic caused them to reflect on their purpose in life, according to a McKinsey survey. About two-thirds of non-executive employees said their purpose in life is largely defined by work, yet only 15% said they are living that purpose in their jobs. In a Gartner survey, 74% of employees said the pandemic made them question their day-to-day job, and 77% said the events of the last few years changed their expectations of their employer. 

Across all parts of the manufacturing sector, employees are asking, “Am I really solving problems that impact the customer?” Employees want not only a firm “yes” to that question; they want to know their companies see the impact they are having and value their efforts. 

People want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. Young recruits, in particular, are focused on their company’s mission and purpose. Manufacturers must create and articulate an authentic story of what they can offer to employees, customers, and society at large. Even more importantly, the employees themselves must be able to do more than regurgitate that story. They must feel and be able to describe their purpose in the organization and the value they provide.

Involving Emotional Intelligence

Employee retention is a key indicator of how well companies are living their vision. A study conducted by the Manufacturing Institute and the American Psychological Association found the most sophisticated retention strategies focus on actively involving employees, ensuring that every individual understands how their efforts are linked to overall company success, and equipping frontline managers with tools to support workers.

The development of leaders around Emotional Intelligence (EQ) must continue. Frontline managers and supervisors must be trained in supportive behavior, such as providing constructive feedback, ensuring workers have meaningful tasks and recognizing excellent performance. Employees themselves must be empowered, through mechanisms like self-managed teams and ambassador programs, to have a larger impact. 

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Robotics

Technology will play an integral role in facilitating the changes manufacturers must make. Automation and robotics will plug some of the talent gaps, but technology’s role in recruitment and retention is nuanced. Manufacturers must trumpet how robotics, IT, and other innovation can simultaneously allow employees to be safer and more productive, as well as more fulfilled and more valuable.

Few workers want to do mundane tasks, like walking a factory floor and checking off items on a clipboard. Today, drones can whiz around factories, handling the “mode one” activities which make workers bored and dispirited and liberating them to do more meaningful work.

Similarly, advancements in artificial intelligence are creating new opportunities for employees to augment their job with software and systems that aid smarter and faster decision-making. Take, for example, tracking the status and location of shipments — what was once a manual task can now be accomplished with predictive estimated times of arrival and automated notifications

But these advancements in automation will require employees to have new technical skills, so employers need to create opportunities for training and continuing education. 

A Never-Ending Commitment

Creating an environment of success is ongoing. In one survey, 58% of respondents said manufacturing jobs had limited career prospects. However, eight in 10 said they would take a manufacturing job that provided customized training and a clearer pathway for career advancement.

The care that manufacturers take to nurture talent must begin well before an applicant comes in the door, and it must continue on their first day on the job. Proper onboarding could be the difference between whether a manufacturing job is a quick pit stop on an employee’s resume or a lasting relationship.

Companies with the highest retention levels will lead the way by designing new jobs and transforming other positions, while raising the profile and responsibilities of those who hold them.

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