While government regulations and prices for energy and raw materials influence manufacturing competitiveness, having a talented, innovative workforce was deemed the most critical factor in a country’s ability to compete in manufacturing, according to the 2013 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index by Deloitte.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is lagging behind other high-wage nations such as Germany and Japan when it comes to innovation in its manufacturing sector. And we’ll continue to lose ground if executives wait for colleges to churn out science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates.
“We can’t wait for someone else to fix it. The talent issue needs to be addressed today,” says Jennifer McNelly, president of The Manufacturing Institute, a non-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Experts may not agree about the existence of the so-called skills gap, but they unilaterally concur that manufacturing executives can jump-start innovation without breaking the bank by tapping into widely available brain trusts.
Collaboration is the secret sauce of innovation, John Zegers says. The director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, Georgia Department of Economic Development, says creativity doesn’t evolve from one person — it comes from inviting different perspectives.
“Whether you’re trying to solve a problem on the manufacturing floor or develop a new product, it’s critically important to garner feedback from everyone who touches the product,” he says.
Historically, manufacturers have expected engineers to be their innovative spark plugs, but the notion of the lone innovator is fading amid the shortage of engineering talent. Today, 90 percent of managers view the manufacturing workforce as full partners in solving problems, improving processes and satisfying customers, according to the 2012 Manpower Manufacturing Workforce Survey.
Moreover, cross-functional teams comprised of accountants to shipping clerks are using their detail orientation and intimate knowledge of supply chain processes to streamline procedures and create new efficiencies.
“Involvement creates ownership and ownership inspires creativity since employees feel empowered to make changes,” Zegers says. “Plus, the cost of marshaling existing resources toward a problem is negligible.”
At the same time, garnering input from people in dissimilar roles broadens a team’s perspective and buoys critical thinking by injecting a dose of cultural and ethnic diversity. Of 321 companies surveyed by Forbes, 85 percent agreed or strongly agreed that diversity is key to driving innovation in the workplace.
While many organizations want the benefits of high-stakes innovation, their culture won’t support it. Executives who resist outside-the-box ideas or penalize failure may unconsciously stifle creativity. If you champion the efforts of cross-functional teams by removing the barriers to innovation and sponsoring a culture that shuns the status quo and rewards risk-taking, the seeds of creativity will sprout and bloom, but only under the right conditions.
Close skill gaps through training and education
Manufacturing executives frequently bemoan the dearth of workers capable of mastering today’s increasingly hi-tech, team-based roles, yet the answer to the problem could be right under their noses.
About 20 percent of all American jobs are now in the STEM fields, with half of those open to workers who don’t have a four-year college degree, according to a new analysis by the Brookings Institution, who refers to these workers as the second STEM economy. Second STEM workers come from high schools, community colleges and vocational schools and are critical to the implementation of new ideas since they advise researchers on feasibility of design options, cost estimates and other practical aspects of technological development.
Manufacturers bear some responsibility for their predicament according to Manpower, since most companies are not recruiting for manufacturing talent as if they were knowledge workers and are not managing them as a knowledge workforce either.
Specifically, they’re neither developing their current employees nor building a pipeline of technically proficient talent to meet near-term hiring needs.
“There are plenty of 40-year-olds working in the industry who were trained in a different way,” says Rick Jarman, president and CEO of The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences. “The talent is there, they just need retraining and development.”
Investing in daylong seminars that use simulation to teach lean manufacturing concepts, kaizen events, overall equipment effectiveness, value stream mapping and so forth can yield big dividends, Jarman says. Workers who understand modern manufacturing concepts may enhance a company’s penchant for innovation.
Plus, ingenuity is a teachable skill. Employees can learn the fundamentals of the innovation process and start generating money-saving, useful ideas after attending a short, four-hour training course. Plus, upgrading your current staff is less risky and time-consuming than developing novices.
Since manufacturing will see a 50 percent increase in the number of mature workers over the next decade, companies should consider this workforce segment as they assess their near-to-medium-term talent acquisition strategies. Innovative organizations are pairing mature workers with technically savvy new hires to facilitate knowledge transfer and mentoring.
Indeed, some industry veterans have the ability and desire to learn advanced technical skills like computer numerical control, machine tools, computer-aided design and manufacturing programs or even robotics, if given the chance. High-potentials are being offered tuition assistance because having a technically competent workforce is critical to innovation.
“Manufacturers can’t capitalize on groundbreaking technology or invest in computer-aided machinery if they don’t have someone to operate it,” McNelly says. “This is just one example of how the skills gap can impact innovation throughout an entire industry.”
Employers can close debilitating talent shortages in as little as three to six months by raising their expectations and requesting certified workers from local community colleges. McNelly cites a pilot program in Northeast Ohio as an example of successful educational alliance. Community colleges provide NAM-Endorsed certified training to students to prepare them for advanced manufacturing careers.
“Just showing up is no longer enough,” McNelly says. “Employers need certified employees to thrive in a manufacturing environment that’s grounded in teamwork.”
Enticing high school students is a long-term solution to looming talent shortages in manufacturing. To succeed, executives need to change students’ perception of the industry.
Offer them apprenticeships and invite students to tour plants so they can see that there’s more to a manufacturing career than standing on your feet all day, says McNelly.
“Show them a distinct career path and the technical aspects of the job, or else bright students with a flair for innovation will pursue opportunities in other industries,” she says.
Cross boundaries to expand your brain trust
Augmenting the creative efforts of a modest staff by crowdsourcing ideas and suggestions from customers and stakeholders is a new approach gaining attention. According to Newsweek, Unilever established an open innovation unit to work with outside partners in 2009, which increased the share of external ideas that are adopted by the company’s business units from 25 percent to 60 percent. Even Starbucks is asking stakeholders to help develop ideas to reduce waste.
While it’s possible to solicit ideas via social media and traditional focus groups, many companies are using online discussion boards to engage outsiders in stimulating conversations with executives and engineers. The back-and-forth banter encourages participation and helps flesh-out creative ideas in real time.
If a shortage of engineering expertise and technical know-how is stifling R&D, one technique is to borrow the requisite expertise by tapping the brain trust at your local college or university.
“Many colleges and universities will gladly provide research, access to labs, professors and engineering students to local manufacturers,” Zegers says. “They can help you develop cutting edge technology or solve problems without adding to staff. They can even help defray development costs by connecting manufacturers with grants or matching funds from state and local governments.”
Collaborative R&D is another way to leverage external expertise and technology in the quest to develop cutting edge products and efficient manufacturing processes.
“Manufacturers can reach the end game faster by pooling intellectual capital and sharing the investment and the return with partners who have complementary talents,” Jarman says.
If you don’t have the wherewithal to source partners and manage large-scale projects, you can still enjoy the benefits of collaborative R&D, by engaging an intermediary.
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences provides neutral, third-party collaborative project oversight. Or, seek out industry programs that form strong multi-disciplinary teams by matching willing partners with experts from universities, government labs and external funding sources. Collaborating with engineers from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership or other public/private partnerships is yet another option.
The opportunities to innovate are endless, even for small manufacturers, if executives go out of their way to broaden their talent circles.
“There are more than 300,000 manufacturers in the U.S. and endless opportunities to collaborate,” Jarman says. “Some of the most creative ideas are coming from small and mid-size manufacturers who have crossed boundaries and barriers to pursue talent-driven innovation.”
How to reach: National Association of Manufacturers, www.nam.org; The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, www.ncms.org; The Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, manufacturing.georgiainnovation.org