Like many manufacturers, Precision Kidd Steel Co. Inc. not only deals with lost experience when people retire, it also has a hard time finding job candidates.
“The dynamic of an aging workforce that is retiring at a faster and faster clip with a shrinking pool of people that are interested in these types of jobs really puts a lot of pressure on staffing and maintaining the skilled workforce and resources we need,” says CEO Mark Sowka.
The manufacturer of cold drawn steel has about 75 employees who work on custom products. Sowka says the days of “growth for growth’s sake” and “anything in a positive margin is good business” are gone.
“You now have to look at the opportunity cost. You have to look at labor as potentially a finite or fixed resource, just like equipment capacity,” he says.
What the company doesn’t do is compromise on who it hires, even if that means it’s not fully staffed. That can mean getting creative with staffing and shift models, while doing more with less.
With workforce development, Sowka says it’s important to be creative and search all available resources.
“Investing in people doesn’t have a very quick and very tangible payoff, but over the long term, it’s absolutely vital for an organization,” he says.
Precision Kidd Steel also utilizes mentoring and bidding.
“We allow employees to put their name in the hat and say I’m interested in moving from the job I’m doing to that more advanced job,” Sowka says.
This internal promotion system is based on a set of criteria: work performance, experience and seniority, etc. If chosen for a higher skilled job, employees get additional training and higher pay.
“People in an office environment typically know what they need to do to move up in an organization,” he says. “It’s not always so well defined in a manufacturing organization, so this provides a structured and a well-defined path for them, for how they better themselves in their career.”
It’s also important to create partnerships, as companies like Precision Kidd Steel aren’t large enough to support significant in-house training.
Sowka says companies need to partner with colleges to identify candidates. Once they find people with aptitude, state training grants can help build candidates up to the right skill level.
Rosedale Technical College is one such partner, and President Dennis Wilke also is the chair of the Precision Manufacturing Institute, a trade school in Meadville, Pennsylvania.
“What I’m seeing is that there are pockets of companies doing well right now, but then there are pockets not doing so well. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Wilke says.
Rosedale started as an automotive school, but now teaches nine areas of study, including industrial technician, electrical technology and welding.
He says the most successful manufacturers have diversity and flexibility, so they aren’t backed into a corner. They work toward meeting a future need, not just satisfying a current one. That flexibility extends to their workforce, as well.
“One of the risks that companies have is they don’t have a workforce that is able to move with them and change with them,” he says. “So, besides recruiting students that have been through formalized training, giving them a wider toolbox and skill set, there’s also a risk of having an incumbent workforce that isn’t able to adapt as they adapt to the market.”
That’s why PMI and Rosedale have both increased their customized skills upgrading.
Wilke recommends partnering with education institutions not just to find talent and help shape training, but also for the visibility. Students gravitate to the companies they know.
“If you aren’t participating with your local educator, whatever type of college that is, you’re going to be toward the back of the line on trying to hire the talent,” he says.
Help them develop
LANXESS Corp., whose U.S. headquarters is in Pittsburgh, has also instituted workforce development programs.
Antonis Papadourakis, Ph.D., president, CEO and country speaker for the NAFTA region, says it starts with high school internships and rotational programs.
LANXESS works with universities, hiring graduates for sales and marketing, engineering and manufacturing, or finance and procurement. The new hires are moved into different departments, functions or even countries.
“It allows the people to develop, get better depth and get experience in the company. And eventually, when they go ahead and fill a role, they will be better equipped to be successful,” he says.
The company also has a successful program in Germany for apprentices, a country that has an aging workforce similar to the U.S. Papadourakis says that program is now in Pittsburgh and other U.S. states.
While a smaller company probably can’t afford to run a rotational program, he says business owners can still hire people right out of college, without much work experience.
“Take the risk, bring these young people in; help them develop while working for your company,” Papadourakis says. “That can help address some of the employment issues and fill the gaps that we see in the workforce.”
No dead ends here
Over the past five years, many employers have reached out to Rosedale about their aging workforces, but Wilke doesn’t believe the phenomenon is specific to trades or blue-collar jobs. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show an aging workforce for while-collar jobs, too.
“It’s more symptomatic of our country’s demographics than it is just for jobs in the trades,” he says, adding that pockets where the average age is higher, like airline mechanics, still do exist.
The bigger challenge is with students and people early in their working career not viewing blue collar or industrial work as their first career choice.
“The distressing thing there is they are viewing that role as something that is chaining them to a certain type of job,” Wilke says. “When the reality is, we’ve seen in our own graduates, a lot of people start in a production type of job and through their own development and motivation are somewhat quickly able to move into management roles.”
While high school leaders are more open to encouraging alternative post-secondary career paths, Wilke says parents and students often remain reluctant.
“One of the things that manufacturing needs is some additional voices touting the long-term benefits to your career of getting into a production type of role — that these days it takes a brain, it takes critical-thinking skills to be in the production line of work, and it can lead to advancement,” he says.