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How Can Employees and Employers Partner to Close the Skills Gap In Manufacturing?

This guest post was authored by Kari Meece, manager of talent acquisition at MAVERICK Technologies, a Rockwell Automation company. 


Manufacturing is growing, so why isn’t there more interest in entering this workforce? I think the perception that manufacturing is not "cool" or "sexy" is outdated. In reality, manufacturing isn’t just an assembly line any more. It is an industry full of intelligence and creativity.  It’s a chance to present innovative solutions that impact our daily lives. I think interest in our field is slowly rising, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are lacking qualified resources now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics site confirms that the need for engineers is growing, but unfortunately, that doesn’t change the lack of talent in the market. On top of that, there are concerns that a majority of engineers are exiting the workforce in the next few years. With that in mind, how can employees and employers partner proactively to close the skills gap in manufacturing?


Hiring Employees


I ask this question because in our line of business, we are the collective skill sets of our people. We must act now to develop the right skills if we want to be positioned well for the future. In my opinion, workforce development cannot be effective without collaboration between employees and employers. First, your senior leadership must buy-in to the necessity of workforce development and fully support those initiatives.

I recently read that the U.S. government invests billions of dollars in workforce development programs each year. However, I was alarmed that they have had very limited impact. Could it be because efforts are focused on providing textbook education rather than on developing the lost art of soft skills? Or could it be because many employers still focus their hiring efforts on technical expertise and academics with little regard to interpersonal characteristics. It’s probably a combination of both.

In addition to workforce development, you need the right people in place before your efforts make a positive impact. That’s why it is also important to hire those with good attitudes.

Over the last several years I’ve noticed that there has been a large emphasis on hiring for technical skills rather than attitude and cultural fit. In reality, soft skills are what can set us apart especially in the manufacturing industry. So why do recruiters continue to kill themselves to find a "needle in a haystack"?  Instead, we should be thinking outside of the box and hiring for potential.

Of course engineers need to understand the fundamentals of applied engineering and mathematics. I’m not kicking that to the curb, but what good is it to be a genius if you cannot collaborate with a team and communicate your ideas and solutions effectively with others?  A balance between technical skills and soft skills is what we are looking for if we are going to be effective in closing the skills gap, especially in a short period of time.

This is where workforce development becomes so important. It takes more than a degree to be successful in the real-world.  This is an issue because there are less skilled workers entering the workforce than there are leaving.  So, we can’t expect to find someone with senior level technical expertise for every job opening we have. At some point, we need to be flexible and prepare for the future. Once employers support this need, then employees must be willing to learn in order for those workforce development initiatives to be effective.

What’s cool about allowing people the opportunity to learn new skills and develop themselves, is that they can give a fresh perspective and may welcome positive change. I’ve also found that when we hire folks that are eager to learn, they tend to ask more questions and gain a more thorough understanding of what is needed in a shorter period of time which ultimately increases their time to productivity.

In my opinion, employers should hold themselves responsible to impart knowledge and expertise to those entering the manufacturing workforce today. This will set them up to have a more loyal and engaged workforce tomorrow. We should be patient and provide resources that are focused on developing key skills such as verbal and written communication, teamwork, time management and problem solving. We typically don’t learn about those as much in school. But there are characteristics and traits that people possess that cannot be taught such as self-discipline, initiative, creativity and integrity.  We need to give those as much consideration as our technical requirements.

Keep in mind that the ability to adapt to new situations and environments is critical.  How well someone "fits" within an organization’s competency model is essential to success. That is why I say that workforce development is two-sided.  If you want to build a competent and loyal workforce then it starts with hiring for attitude and expands through leadership support in building workforce development into the business strategy.

What steps has your company taken to develop employees and close the skills gap in manufacturing?

About the Author
Kari Meece is MAVERICK’s Manager of Talent Acquisition and is responsible for defining, developing and implementing all talent acquisition strategies as well as leading staffing initiatives. Prior to working at MAVERICK Technologies, Kari led talent acquisition teams in the information technology, finance and consulting services industries. Kari’s 12 years of human resources experience includes expertise in recruitment, onboarding, social media, networking, employment branding, leadership development, workforce planning and employment diversity. Her interest in HR and talent acquisition is deep-rooted. She was raised to “to do the right thing,” and is motivated to help others achieve their dreams.

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