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Top 10 Takeaways for Recruiting & Retaining Manufacturing Talent

Published on by Travis Knight in Manufacturing, Wholesale / Distribution

Top 10 Takeaways for Recruiting & Retaining Manufacturing Talent

With ten thousand Baby Boomers retiring each day and the first waves of Gen Z entering the workforce, what employees expect from employers is changing rapidly – and even as the manufacturing economy slows and shrinks, the battle to attract and retain quality talent is escalating.

In the 2023 Manufacturing Compensation and Benefits Study reveal, manufacturing industry advocate and Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership (AMIP) co-founder, Will Healy III, unpacked the key things today’s talent is looking for and showed how innovative manufacturers are leveraging new technologies on the factory floor to engage talent, increase productivity, and enhance worker safety.

Here are the top 10 takeaways from Will’s session.

1. The (digital) natives are restless

Gen Z workers have grown up with smartphones, high-speed internet, YouTube, micro-learning, and social media – they’re digital natives, and they expect digital solutions and technology. Digital natives expect businesses to have a strong digital profile. Virtually every single person who applies to your company has visited your website and your social media and assessed your reputation on employer review sites. What do they see when they get to yours?

Does your website work well on mobile? With 55% of website traffic now coming from mobile devices, a great mobile user experience is crucial. Is your photography updated, with a clean, modern aesthetic?

Regardless of how you feel about social media, a credible LinkedIn presence is critical, as about 80% of candidates research your company online before applying. Will noted that about 40% of the manufacturing companies he reviewed in a recent audit didn’t have a company LinkedIn profile – a major red flag for Millennial and Gen Z candidates.

2. Diversity and sustainability are no longer “nice-to-haves”

Gen Z and Millennials want that deeper connection to grander goals – they see themselves as global citizens with a civic duty to the planet, and they look for both diversity and sustainability initiatives in their employer. Gen Z is the most diverse generation in history – 48% self-identify as a minority (compare that to 18% of Boomers). And 77% of Gen Z and Millennials say an organization’s level of diversity directly impacts their willingness to work there.

If you’re trying to attract young talent (and who isn’t?), having younger people in leadership positions is crucial, as both Millennials and Gen Z expect to see the future reflected in your leadership team makeup. If they don’t see it, they’ll keep looking. And keep in mind that the first wave of Millennials is now in their early 40s.

3. You’re competing with free cheeseburgers

Workforce shortages are everywhere, and the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data isn’t encouraging. In manufacturing, transportation, warehouse, and utilities, there are 1.2 million unfilled positions. And for every unfilled manufacturing position, there are four more in retail, accommodation, and food service, and four more in healthcare. That’s ten unfilled positions in your neighborhood. On top of that, fast-food chains are offering all the same benefits you are – insurance, 401(k), tuition reimbursement, and paid time off. Plus, free meals. “You’re competing with a free cheeseburger,” said Will. “You have to think more creatively about what your benefit package looks like because other industries are also thinking more creatively about their benefit package.”

4. It can be a vicious cycle

Unfilled positions may cause missed deadlines, later deliveries, and unhappy customers. The rising cost of labor reduces margins. And your workforce may be increasingly suffering reduced quality of life due to required overtime and/or weekend work that reduces the amount of time they’re able to spend with their families or on the activities they love.

That can lead to negative online employer reviews, declining Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and other employer reputation impacts – making recruiting even more difficult and accelerating the cycle of lost production due to idle machines, lowered productivity, and lowered profitability.

5. Assess your technology status quo

Will noted that most manufacturers he talks with have equipment from the 1970s (50+ years ago) running on their production floor, that virtually all have technology from the 1990s (30 years ago), and that some (especially metals manufacturers) have equipment in production that dates to World War II – 80 years ago.

In short, many manufacturers are working with 30-year-old equipment while trying to recruit Gen Z workers – a group so focused on new technology that many regularly sleep in tents for three days to get the latest smartphone. A clear-eyed understanding of your technology and plan for strategic investments is a big part of recruiting Gen Z and Millennials.

6. Looks matter – what does your plant tour communicate?

Whether you realize it or not, your plant is communicating with your prospective and current employees. What’s it saying to them? They’re thinking about whether their basic needs will be met, whether they’ll be safe, whether the work areas are clean and organized, and for visual cues that you’ll be investing in them and their future. Will commented “I can tell you everything about your company’s culture based upon the status of your bathrooms.”

7. Start dropping the D-words

Manufacturing work has dull, dirty, dangerous, and dark tasks. People-centric technologies like collaborative automation, operator guidance, and other Industry 5.0 solutions can help you eliminate one or more of these D-words, creating a direct value for employees and making the jobs in your organization more interesting for your employees – so they’re more likely to stay.

The European Union’s Industry 5.0 – A Transformative Vision for Europe talks about changing the way we look at the plant beyond efficiency and productivity, and looking more closely at the role and contribution of industry to society and the well-being of the worker at the center of the production process.

8. The future is now

Some of the technologies may seem incredibly futuristic, but they’re here and available now: wearables, exoskeletons, virtual and augmented and mixed reality, laser templating, robots and drones, quadrupeds, and material handling and collaborative robots are all making a major difference for innovative manufacturers today.

9. I, Robot? Not exactly. It’s people-centric.

Wearable technology includes innovations like hands-free barcode scanners and assisted gripping gloves that create better ergonomic situations and improve productivity, but also make it much easier for people to do their job.

Operator guidance technologies are helping with onboarding, getting people up to speed faster and engaging them more effectively – as well as reducing errors and improving quality. “Teleoperation robots may be fun to watch dancing in YouTube videos,” Will said, “But they’re also doing really great work. Think about your combined space or your hazardous location work. You can send a robot instead of a person in there. This reduces the safety risks and physical stress of certain tasks for workers. It is really functional inside unstructured environments like a factory.”

Will also talked about how drones are being used effectively in manufacturing environments – doing inspections on equipment that’s two or three stories tall so that no one has to go up in a lift or put on climbing gear. They’re also being used in inventory management, increasing accuracy and reducing repetitive tasks like scanning barcodes and writing down inventory counts.

Autonomous mobile robots may not seem people-centric on the surface, Will argues, but they actually are. “Driving port trucks around is a really dangerous thing going on in your factory. These are much safer material movement applications. They allow you to move material from one machine to the other, from inbound logistics to a machine, to cross-dock or move waste material.”

Collaborative robots, or “cobots” put the worker at the center of the process: “It’s automation with the worker, not instead of the worker,” said Will. “This is a technology that works with the frontline workers so they don’t have to work like a robot.”

10. The odds aren’t in your favor when it comes to recruiting

Today’s labor shortage shows no sign of relenting any time in the foreseeable future. So what do you do?  After taking some questions from the audience, Will summed up today’s manufacturing recruiting environment and the ways manufacturers can leverage technology to stand out from the crowd by saying, “the time when you could put an ad in the newspaper and have forty applicants show up for one position is gone – pretty much gone forever. Forty positions for one applicant might be your new normal. You’ve got to sell them on why they should work at your company. And remember, your general benefits package is not competitive to Wendy’s unless you are offering that free cheeseburger.”

Start your agile path to a competitive advantage

You can watch Will Healy III’s full keynote, including summaries of the compensation and benefits findings from the 2023 Manufacturing Compensation and Benefits Study (sponsored by Barnes Dennig, USI Insurance, North Side Bank & Trust, and AMIP), on the Barnes Dennig website. You can also download a copy of the slides as well as the full 2023 Manufacturing Compensation and Benefits study, subscribe to manufacturing updates and event invitations, and explore manufacturing-specific resources.


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