Last month I wrote a piece of news and analysis regarding a survey by ThomasNet. The survey of 500 manufacturing leaders of small to medium businesses reported the good news of increased business and improving outlook. But, respondents complained about a couple of manufacturing workforce issues—lack of people with appropriate engineering and technical skills and work ethic (or lack thereof) from people of the “millennial” generation.

My first reaction is that I hate those generation generalizations. I’m technically a boomer, but I don’t think I identify with a majority boomer traits. In fact, I’ve discovered that I fit many traits of millennials. And I know others in my situation.

On the other hand, marketers have found those generalizations useful for consumer marketing campaigns. There must be some truth in the mix somewhere.

Regarding millennials, I also referred to a piece I wrote following a session at last year’s Emerson Global Users Exchange. One thing that shocked me at that meeting was the strong opinion among some “boomer” engineers who discounted an entire generation of engineers for being intellectually shallow by relying on Google too much and for being spoiled.

Probing deeper into the issues

In order to dive a little deeper into the survey, I had a follow up interview with Linda Rigano, ThomasNet Executive Director of Media Relations. She took me through a little history. For nearly 100 years, the 30+ volume green Thomas Register occupied a shelf in the bookcase of nearly every procurement person and engineer in a manufacturing company in the country. Its pages contained specifics of companies supplying almost anything you could need or want.

ThomasNet took the register online in 1998. “It’s the first online directory,” said Rigano. “It’s a major site with every manufacturer and distributor in North America. We are premier product source and discovery site with 68,000 product categories. We focus on helping procurement specialists and engineers even to the extent of downloading CAD drawings.”

ThomasNet also houses an internal ad agency. The company’s focus is small to medium sized manufacturers considering that to aggregate to about 80% of the total market.

For the survey, researchers talked to owners and/or managers of 500 companies—evenly split between product manufacturers and custom manufacturers.

As I reported from the press release, most see an improved economy, business growth, added investments, and the need for more employees. And there is the rub. The number one problem each talked about was finding qualified job candidates, especially in these areas:

  • Manufacturing and production management
  • Engineers
  • Skilled trade
  • Production workers

Worse, there is a “perfect storm” brewing with positive growth, need for workers, and 1/3 saying they plan to retire within 10 years with no succession plan in place.

Some are proactive

What I wanted to know was are there any of these owners/managers doing anything about the labor shortage? Do they recruit, train, apprentice? I’m not interested in yet another hand-wringing article much as we’ve seen for 10 years.

ThomasNet does not have statistics on this, but they did collect stories (which I hope to share in the future as examples for everyone else). There are some bright lights—some true leaders doing something about the problem.

There is a company in Phoenix that makes precision built-to-order components. The general manager was having a hard time getting the people he needed, yet he was bidding a contract that would require adding 12 people to his 85-person staff. So, he partnered with a local motorcycle school to find mechanics. He’s looked at some creative ways of recruiting from outside his immediate area and bringing them to Phoenix.

Another manager who has a location in southern US advertised on Craig’s List in the north about coming south where it is warmer. (That would work this week when I’m writing this, highs are low teens Fahrenheit with lows below zero!)

A Wisconsin manufacturer has been intentionally recruiting millennials. The manager had to sell his partners on the concept because of their perceptions of young people. He has gone to technical colleges and engineering schools. He gives seminars on manufacturing and technology. One key recruiting tool is tours of the plant.

Tackle the problem

There are ways to tackle the workforce problem.

  • First, remove the glasses that cause you to look narrowly at the problem.
  • Go out yourself to colleges and trade schools and meet people.
  • Give seminars on manufacturing
  • Take young people on guided tours of your plants to show them the realities of the joys of making things

Take a chance—be proactive and go out and get them.

 

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