The manufacturing industry will have to lean heavily on rebranding the profession to overcome a growing 2 million-worker deficit nationwide, according to a recent panel of directors from the Missouri Association of Manufacturers.
The industry group held its annual conference Feb. 7 in Springfield, during which four of its nine directors assembled to discuss challenges facing the industry. Focused mostly on workforce development, the group offered a breadth of options to bridge the employment gap.
“So, this is probably where we could spend the rest of the day,” said MAM Director Kevin Thompson, COO and CFO of Chesterfield-based Cambridge Engineering Inc., a specialist in energy-efficient heating.
“How many of you are having trouble finding, attracting and retaining good employees?” Thompson asked the conference-goers gathered at the Oasis Hotel & Convention Center.
“If you’re not putting your hand up, I don’t believe you,” he said. “You’re lying to me. We are all struggling with it. It’s real. It’s going to get worse.”
Gone, however, are the days of haze-filled machine shops where greasy employees work long hours in dangerous conditions, said MAM Director Dan Stroot, a senior manager for The Boeing Co. in St. Louis.
It’s a talking point the group stressed to help gain workers.
“Things have changed,” Stroot said. “But we don’t do a very good enough job of really promoting that.”
A key group for the rebranding effort, he said, is middle- and high-school-age students. They could later enter pre-employment programs offered by companies to help foster seamless job entry, Stroot said.
“You’ve got to get back down into the grade schools; you’ve got to get back into the high schools,” he said. “And that’s one of the things we do quite a bit is career fairs, (science, technology, engineering and math) fairs. ... But you can’t do nothing.”
Thompson said there are some 2 million unfilled manufacturing industry jobs nationwide, and the figure only grows because of a lack of focus and respect paid to the industry during the past 20-30 years.
To overcome the challenge, Thompson said Cambridge Engineering partners with trade schools. But the company’s main emphasis, he said, is keeping employees already secured.
“It’s a lot easier for us to keep people than it is to find people,” he said. “For us, that all centers around culture. I mean, we pay competitively, and we have good benefits. But, so do other people.”
He considers employee satisfaction the primary responsibility of company leadership.
“What we want is people who actually find joy in coming to work at Cambridge,” he said. “We actually use that word. We want them to feel like they enjoy being there and that it’s a beneficial part of their life. ... If we can pull that off, people don’t leave.”
Part of creating that joy, Stroot said, is employees taking pride in the manufacturing process and realizing they’re part of a grander picture.
“What was the end result?” he said, exemplifying a parts-maker and the final jet. “When you see an FA-18 or an F-15 take off in full afterburner, coming off the runway in the middle of the morning, with two big ol’ cones coming out of the rear – it’s like, wow, man, I helped build that airplane.
“That’s the marketing campaign that we gotta do. We’ve got to make it more appealing to those kids.”
Thompson also addressed what he called “the dead cat on the table” regarding the topic of millennials, the often-criticized, job-hopping generation born post-1980.
“You don’t have to put your hand up, but think to yourself: Have you ever complained about millenials? I see a lot of smiles. Me, too. Guess what? They’re awesome,” Thompson said. “The problem isn’t millennials. The problem is we don’t know how to lead them. A lot of us are baby boomers who grew up in leader-dependent environments ... and we’re bringing in people that don’t work like that.”
One changeup to address younger generations, he said, is allowing flexible scheduling, a practice employed at Cambridge.
“We’ve retained millennials because of that,” he said. “That flexibility is important to them in their lives. ... If they are motivated, they are the hardest working, most creative group of people I’ve ever seen.”
At Mountain-Grove based metal-works company Beehler Corp., President Pete Fischer said an emphasis is placed on cross-training employees and making use of temporary workers when needed to even out the ebb and flow of business.
“One thing we put a lot of effort into is our safety program, as well as building a good workforce environment,” said Fischer, the MAM board chairman. “So, when they’re at work, they’re safe, and it’s a more enjoyable place to be.”
MAM Director Scott Bolonda, CEO of spice manufacturer Red Monkey Foods Inc., also stressed building a positive work culture.
“Some of this room can influence that at a global level – like if you own your business – but we all, really in the sphere of influence that we have, we really can create that, even if it’s a subculture that ladders up to the overall company vision and mission,” he said.
Moreover, he said, it’s locally important to make known what a particular company does, using inventive job-fair marketing to gain attention.
“Instead of just table tents and handing out cards – what if we had a little cooking demo with some of our products,” Bolonda said. “Those are simple things, but they also go back and have to be consistent with the culture. You can’t have a disconnect, because that will not allow you to retain employees.”
No one can say Mary Beth O’Reilly isn’t determined.
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