At long last, there is light at the end of the manufacturing tunnel. Some sources even suggest that, for now at least, manufacturing is getting its "sexy" back.
Manufacturing is helping to drive the economic recovery, and that is catching the attention of politicians and investors. There are sporadic signs of reshoring. The shale gas boom promises to vastly improve the prospects for a reliable supply of affordable plastics feedstocks. And the stock market, housing sector and consumer confidence are all on the upswing, helping to refill production order books.
But even the good news brings its own set of challenges. Manufacturing can be the source of solid, good-paying jobs — and therein lies the rub. The competition for qualified workers is only getting tougher. And states have become increasingly aggressive with each other in their efforts to lure job-creating businesses.
To capture the spoils, one needs skilled labor, which, despite high unemployment, is scarce. So how can a manufacturer tackle these challenges? There are various tactics:
• Create a culture that enables you to become an "employer of choice," making your firm a destination workplace with a solid reputation for appreciating and rewarding its employees.
• Connect with returning service veterans who have leadership skills and are hungry for work.
• Draft trainable workers from under-tapped sections of society and beef up your ability to get them up to speed.
• Develop and nurture relationships with local community colleges and charter schools.
The last point is vital. It essentially involves investing in a farm team to develop future talent. It's not a quick fix and it takes patience, time and commitment from the very top of your company.
Conceptually, it doesn't seem that hard. If you're hungry, you go to the grocery store or a restaurant. If you need a pair of shoes or a shirt, you go to the local mall.
So if you run a manufacturing business and you need skilled, or at least trainable, employees in order to grow, where do you go to find such people? It seems obvious: Your local schools and training institutions should be one logical option. So why do so few plastics manufacturers make the effort to hone such relationships? Without a doubt, some do, and they do a good job of it. But unfortunately they are in the minority.
There's a serious disconnect between manufacturers and academia. The recent Great Recession didn't help. Many companies cut their recruitment or training budgets, or stopped taking on interns or apprentices. Some colleges jettisoned those courses that were most useful for training future engineers or manufacturing workers. As a result, some manufacturers who now are ready and able to start reinvesting in their workforce of the future are having a difficult time even finding schools with appropriate programs or government programs that can help to subsidize the cost of such efforts.
These things do still exist. But we need to re-establish connections, rebuild networks, re-lay foundations between academia and manufacturers. Groups such as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation (www.smeef.org) offer a good starting point. So do industry events aimed at addressing this vital issue.
Plastics News is trying to do its part. In addition to publishing an 88-page report called "U.S. Plastics Industry Labor Trends 2013," we recently hosted our 15th Executive Forum in Tampa, Fla., and devoted the entire topic to workforce development. (We also will produce this month a West Coast addendum to the labor trends report.) You can see our news coverage, plus speaker videos from the event at www.plasticsnews.com/forum2013. Early next month, we are organizing our Workforce Solutions West conference in suburban Los Angeles, to address many of the same issues, but with a West Coast flavor (read: immigration law, local training resources, etc.). Details about that June 4-5 event are at www.plasticsnews.com/wsw2013.
Our aim is to provide best-practice knowledge and valuable resources to company owners, presidents, C-level executives, plant managers and human resources officials who want to proactively manage this skilled-labor challenge.
But regardless of which resources you tap into, every company needs to urgently reassess its approach to workforce development. Reach out to your local technical colleges and high schools. Every company is only as good as its employees. Those who ignore that will pay a dear price down the road.