Skilled talent is right in front of you

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Russ Riendeau

Crain's Chicago Business' Focus section ran an Oct. 29 report on manufacturing that featured a story [Page 21] about the difficulties of finding skilled talent — "30,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in Illinois," according to the story.

While the story addressed manufacturing of all types, the challenges are prevalent in plastics.

The story delivered some good data and reasons why it is difficult to find talent for these positions. However, there was no mention of what manufacturers can do right now to identify, attract and retain talent. Executive leaders, as empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests, are not doing a good enough job with what resources they have already.

There are a number of ways companies can locate and attract talent into today's marketplace, while society waits for universities to upgrade/update/enhance marketing campaigns to lure more technically oriented students (unlikely), or wait for another surge in the birth of 24-year-old engineers.

Full disclosure: I am a longtime executive search professional in the manufacturing industry. I am retained by executives to find talent for companies that either don't have the resources or the time to commit to sourcing talent. Every day (since 1985) I see and am involved with the real issues.

Placing all the blame on

the lack of talent due to baby boomers retiring, or young people not being interested in vocational programs, is like blaming the basketball for not going through the hoop: It's the person holding the ball that is the issue.

By taking a "right now" approach, there are many ways to overcome the challenges of securing talent in our present economy.

Here are some immediate ideas, and considerations, that can help executives begin to attract talent:


  • Overhaul your website and remove the picture showing your manufacturing building that was taken circa:1997, on a Saturday morning with the American flag waving prominently, not a car or soul to be seen, other than the boss's Mercedes parked in the handicap spot. People believe you have a building. Show them what's going on inside it. That's what we want to know.
  • Video is king. Create a professionally produced video to run on your site and on YouTube. Tell a story of success and fun. Show employees, get interviews, testimonials from your good customers (or call your old customers to be on camera, and they'll want to be new customers again).
  • Show faces of workers, not faces of tools. Show people having fun — not bent over a worktable, show parties in the backyard — not white shirts around a conference table looking "fake interested."
  • If you make a lot of parts, prove it. What does a million parts per day look like? Can you create a video, a picture, a story around a million of something to engage the viewer or potential candidate? They want to have fun, not just job security.
  • If your people are inventors, have patents or design awards, show them on camera. Let them tell their story.
  • Show finished products you helped build, not just the parts you make piled in a big box or a display case.

Physical buildings

  • Speaking of the display case, update your lobby to be hip and inviting to young workers. Older manufacturing building lobbies still look like the set of the Dick Van Dyke show.
  • Remove the sign reading: Job Applicants, Go to Back Door. Welcome all applicants at the front door and don't send them to the dented, rusted, metal door in back near the loading dock to apply for a job. It's depressing and immediate makes a statement of a lower-class job.
  • Take down the "Not Hiring" sign out front. Invite all people to fill out an application. You never know who will find you.
  • Consider for a moment the possibility of moving manufacturing (or maybe some departments) closer to the people in the nearby cities to attract stronger talent. Workers today can't afford to drive 50 miles to and from work. Farm fields are there for a reason: not everybody wants to live there.
  • Paint the front door, upgrade the company signage to be current, lighted and visible.

Leadership development

  • Deliver professional interview training to all your hiring managers in the next 30 days. Less than 80 percent of all managers have ever received this kind of training. The reality is that great talent is walking and driving by all the time, but managers are not trained to spot hidden talent.
  • Improve your on-boarding and training programs. Managers' default is to hire talent "with experience in the industry" because training programs are weak or nonexistent. If you have a great product training program, you'll be able to hire candidates with stronger intellects who can learn the processes faster. Product training is the easiest and cheapest to deliver.
  • Replace the old lab coats or standard issue shirts with a current style, bright colors that actually fit the employee.
  • Don't talk culture — show culture. Saying your culture is about family and then allowing unproductive, troublesome employees continue to work for you is not a good culture.

Workforce development

  • Create specific, measureable goals for every employee for the each quarter and the year. What gets measured gets done right. Managers must manage proactively to enhance, rather than react.
  • Incentives: Every employee should have a way to earn a few dollars in bonus by going above and beyond expectations. Encourage all workers to be part of the sales process by creating the motives to share the company's values, benefits and potential to advance.

With the exception of relocating a plant of department, all these suggestions can be implemented now to make an impact on how efficient and effective leaders create positive change. The packaging community is no different that the food, cement, airplane-building or coffin-making industries — the challenge to find good talent is real — there is a shortage.

There are also many ways to upgrade current approaches to be sure we didn't miss a diamond lying on the shop floor.

Riendeau is senior partner of East Wing Group Inc., an executive search practice in Barrington, Ill., and author of First Hide the Poison Arrows, an audiobook on sales and leadership in our post-recession economy. He will be one of a host of speakers at this year's Plastics News Executive Forum: Industry Leadership & Skills Summit, March 3-6 in Tampa, Fla.