Manufacturing Is In Crisis: 3 Ways To Respond

Female and male manufacturing colleagues working together

Manufacturing has a talent problem – and more than just one. Turnover for the industry is nearly double the rate of any other field. Open positions could top 2 million in the next decade. Women, despite being more than half of the workforce, are less than a third of people on manufacturing payrolls. 

But manufacturing’s woes aren’t limited to the perimeters of HR – too many people going out and not enough coming in. There are also serious problems once people are on the floor. That’s where the effects of not enough people play out.  

So more than only retention and recruitment, manufacturing has a productivity problem.

What we mean by a productivity problem — and three solutions

What do we mean? Just look at the industry challenges: skeleton crews, an inability to fill shifts, the ever-growing runway for training new hires, and the fact that it can take an entry-level worker two to five years to get up to speed. It all adds up to not enough employees with not enough availability and not enough skills. And it collectively hampers the ability for even the most committed current employees to produce everything from computer circuitry to cars and trucks. To meet today’s workforces where they are, organizational decision-makers need to trouble-shoot in areas that build upon strategic pillars:

  1. Flexibility: Create sufficient flexibility for employees — especially front-line workers — to meet the demands of the workplace and their home lives.
  2. Growth: Make the commitment to career growth and education a fundamental part of your relationship with employees.
  3. Personalization: Tune into the needs of employees at different life stages and personalize benefits to the individual.

So, let’s now explore how company leaders might build upon these pillars.

Flexibility to meet the needs of employees and the company

As in any industry, employees in manufacturing crave (are demanding) flexibility. Yet for an industry that has more immovable structure than its knowledge-worker brethren, the concept poses a unique challenge: how do you give people flexibility when the time and place of work is largely fixed? That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Some employers are already earning points for playing creatively with things like shift scheduling and workweek structure. Others are scanning the landscape for new possibilities. Four-day workweeks, for example, may not be a widely applicable solution for manufacturing; but the rapid adoption of that model across industries demonstrates how an idea considered a non-starter not long ago can rapidly gain acceptance. For manufacturing, it poses a question: what fringe ideas for flexibility have the potential to go mainstream next year? 

It’s also important to remember that flexibility isn’t just about time and place of work; it’s also about the ability of an employee to match work schedule to availability. That’s not so easy for people with children, whose availability gets hung up on the undependability of a child’s school calendar, and hinges on the employee’s ability to synch up the school day to the workday. 

The effects of child care issues played out in especially dire fashion during the early pandemic. With the closure of schools, one factory saw absentee rates climb from less than 10% (the normal rate) to 50%, much of it driven by working parents. True, the situation was exceptional; yet it provides a giant-sized case study in what happens when school unexpectedly shutters. As one factory HR leader told the Wall Street Journal, when care breaks down, “You can’t leave a 6-year-old at home by themselves.” And it’s not just a once-in-a-lifetime problem. After-school care is a constant challenge. And with the public school calendar operating only 180 days of the year, parents of school children struggle constantly to string together vacation and summer care to fill the holes. So for frontline employees, flexibility has to be defined as the above schedule choices, plus care options that can roll with evolving needs. 

On-site child care with capacity for back-up spaces is one solution to this challenge. Another is access to a network that can allow paid caregivers to jump in quickly when an employee faces sudden and unexpected childcare needs. 

Help for employees to grow and advance their careers and skills

Here's what we know about the future of industrial work: it will be more automated, with machines taking on the repetitive and routine work and the “humans in the loop” working to maintain and continually adapt the systems to stay flexible and agile. Such evolving conditions will not replace people – but it will require them to develop new skills. 

The future of industrial and manufacturing work will require the ability to solve problems and think critically. Middle and high-skill workers will need to be agile and adaptable amidst rapidly changing contexts and demands. Work will require the capacity to collaborate across networks and lead by influence. It will require people to communicate effectively and be adept at accessing and analyzing information. The hallmarks of the human dimension will be curiosity, empathy, and the confidence to take the initiative. 

The fourth industrial revolution is underway. Without advancing skills and capabilities, employees are unable to perform to the fullest, and manufacturing companies risk being left behind. Yet 3 in 4 manufacturers say they don’t even have a strategy for talent development in place.

To stay competitive and thrive, it’s paramount to encourage and empower people to grow at your organization – and to give them the tools to do it. To create a talent pipeline and help attract and retain people to your workforce, develop and communicate clear paths for upward mobility. This approach alone will help solve many of today’s staffing challenges for manufacturing — and help stem the projected labor shortage that’s expected to continue over the next decade.

Programs that tune into employees’ needs across different stages and walks of life

In manufacturing, hiring, training, and retention challenges span entry-level, middle-skill, and high-skilled roles. Those groups all have unique needs. Thus, it’s important to offer a broad range of benefits that appeal to all employee groups — by gender, location, race, age, career stage, and walk of life.

For example, manufacturing workers at all levels of your organization and in all stages of life have caregiving needs — and they don’t always involve children. Providing a way to help employees care for older family members is another way organizational leaders can help frontline workers better manage how and when they work.

Personalization opportunities also come in the form of education and training for the above skills. For example, many career paths related to the manufacturing process in design, engineering, and QA require further education to pursue.

Personalized education improves short and long-term business outcomes. Greater engagement follows providing career-advancing education to people in production jobs. Greater engagement means less absenteeism, better quality products, and less waste.

The toughest part is making the change

The above strategies are essential to addressing manufacturing’s productivity problems. But they also do a lot more.

That’s because people today think differently about what they expect from their employers and jobs; they’re making job choices not just based on today’s salary, but on key future-focused elements, such as their ability to support families and create solid futures. Millions of women left the workforce during the pandemic because of conflicts between family and career. More than a quarter  26% — of companies in the U.S. and Canada say employees leave because of career training and development opportunities. Flexibility (or lack of it) is a top issue driving employees to the door. To attract and keep people will require delivering on the elements employees want and need. Companies that offer child care, for example, see a 60% reduction in turnover.

It means by addressing flexibility, growth, and personalization, the same approaches that can positively impact manufacturing’s productivity problem will also address those talent problems, bringing people in the door, and enticing them to stay.


Female and male manufacturing colleagues working together

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