Labor Woes – Just Not the Kind You Think

When people talk about labor, they often focus on unions, disengaged employees and high wages. But there is a much bigger problem facing manufacturers today – a real skills shortage. Industry Week focused on this topic in a special report called Labor Days.

While statistics tell the real story, the important stories are those of individuals. On IW’s website, there is an very well-written story of an individual who lost their manufacturing job and struggled to find the kind of work he wanted. Although he complains about working night shift a little too intensely (we all should take a turn at that), it tells the story of frustration for many trying to make their way in the manufacturing workforce. Just last night, my car service driver on my way home from the airport used to work in software development General Motors. When he asked me if I worked in the auto industry and I said “used to” his response was “didn’t we all.” He told me his story of the glory days of past, now replaced by working two jobs. He wasn’t complaining though.

The fundamental problem is this: new workers available for work don’t have the skills required by those hiring, and those in the workforce aren’t adding skills that fit the changing profile of required work. The result: companies that have to move, and people either unemployed or vastly underemployed. The skills gap is significant. In a company that I’m a partner in, Cobra Motorcycles, we are doing some hiring. Finding machine operators is no problem at all, but finding a true skilled senior machinist is a much harder task.

What’s the solution? Well, there is no one solution. But here are some the things that are needed and what we can do.

1. What’s needed? Companies need to do more training, and vastly improve the quality of the training provided. Very few, if any, companies OVER-train. The key is getting the training to be job specific or development-specific. Some things are needed by everyone, but most are needed by specific roles. The quality of training must be improved. Too often, we focus training on what is easy to measure, meaning hours or the ability to pass a quiz. We don’t emphasize high-quality training and high-quality measurements, such as the demonstration of applying what was learned. I do see many corporate training centers and it is amazing how many courses are clearly taking the easy route, meaning the hours are kept to a minimum, the depth of engagement is painless, and the testing is a simple quiz at the end. We must fight for value-added training, meaning training that makes a difference. Training that creates no change is WASTE!

2. We need better local manufacturing training and skills improvement. These might be community colleges or tech centers, but here again the breadth, depth and quality of training must improve significantly. Two major things must happen. First, manufacturers must get more engaged. They must provide not just financial support but knowledge support and input. Don’t just figure it out yourself, figure it out in partnership with these resources. They need a supply of knowledge and content to provide the right training, and a great deal of feedback on what is actually needed by manufacturers. These groups also often get financial support from local, state and federal resources. This is greatly needed, and campaigning your government for support of manufacturing is needed. Unfortunately, most lobbying efforts from manufacturing seem to focus more on international trade issues, including protectionism, instead of training the workforce that we have.

3. Lastly, continue improving your own skills. The above measures just makes it easier. But each individual must take RESPONSIBILITY for their own fate. This means finding a way to continue your own learning and skill building, no matter what your level is.

This problem can be solved, but it won’t be with the amount of focus it currently gets. We must raise the bar, and raise the skills, if manufacturing is going to have the kind of future that we all want, and expect.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh is a lean advisor, speaker, and author. In addition to co-founding the Lean Learning Center, he has helped build nearly 20 companies as either a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor. These companies range from high-performance motorcycles to SaaS tools for continuous improvement. He has advised over 300 companies around the world in lean transformation, including Intel, Harley-Davidson, Crayola, BMW, and Amazon. Jamie co-authored the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, and continues to share his experiences as a Contributing Editor forIndustryWeek and as a blogger at JamieFlinchbaugh.com. He holds degrees from Lehigh University, University of Michigan, and MIT, and continues to teach and mentor on campus. Jamie is best known for helping to transform how we think about lean from a tools-centric model to one based on principles and behaviors. His passion for lean transformation comes from seeking to unlock the great potential that people possess to build inspiring organizations.

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