A Shortage of Employees or a Shortage of Lean Management?


“Help Wanted” highlights skills drain in U.S – Yahoo! News

Here's an interesting story about the shortage of machinists:

While millions of jobs making everything from textiles to steel have moved to new powerhouses like China in recent years, precision manufacturing remains a crucial niche in the United States, one that is overworked and chronically understaffed.

And, in a bad sign for the United States and its declining economic might, that shortage of skilled workers is likely to get worse as Baby Boomers retire — with no younger generation of manufacturing workers to take the baton.

“Our workforce is an aging workforce,” said Chief Executive Jeff Kelly, whose father founded Hamill nearly 60 years ago. “There isn't a queue of people lining up to come into the industry.”

I've sort of lost track of this in manufacturing, but I can believe it. The last machining environment I worked in didn't have many young “new” employees. Hospitals face many of the same types of key skill shortages: pharmacists, medical technologists, nurses, and other areas.

Who wants to go into manufacturing, given the reputation it has been given in this country? The prospects for a good career don't seem very good, given the incessant stories about how manufacturing is going overseas and the U.S. will be a “service economy.”

The article talked about strategies companies and organizations are using — increasing pay, offering educational and apprenticeship help… but I didn't hear anything about Lean. How many of these open machinist positions would be filled, only to have them standing around some part of the day due to poor product flow or an old non-Lean “one person – one machine” approach where people stand and watch the automation run?

I heard one hospital president speak, in a Lean conference, about the shortages of skilled employees in healthcare. He had a really provocative thought (and I'm paraphrasing):

Do we have a shortage of skilled employees or a shortage of the proper types of managers?

He was saying we need more managers who focus on eliminating waste (through Lean) so that we can be more efficient rather than just asking for more people and more resources.

This hospital president (after success with Lean throughout his hospital) was CONVINCED that the industry's labor shortages would be solved if everyone was using Lean.

Is the same true in precision machining?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. It has been my experience that when a shortage of a certain labor type is stated (by recruiters, the press, or even hiring managers and former coworkers of mine) it is always a “shortage of highly trained people who can be dropped into a position and perform immediately but who I don’t have to pay a lot.”

    To me, that means a shortage of good managers. It seems that few are willing to find talented people and train them.

    I don’t find many small to midsized companies that can really train people. They just want to hire people that are already trained, and when they can’t, its called a “shortage”.

    Mostly, its up to very large companies to train, and risk the subsequent poaching of those trained people to other companies. I see this in machining, engineering, healthcare, and management consulting, just to name a few.

  2. Related to Matt’s comment is the phenomenon known as Hunting the Five-Pound Butterfly.

    It does seem, though, that there is a (largely media-induced) perception of manufacturing as an area in which ambitious and creative people would not want to work. One of the online dating sites surveyed participants as to their major turn-offs, and found that “works in manufacturing” was one of the worst attributes a man could have in terms his perceived date-ability by women.

  3. “also there is this thing where like, 100,000+ people are in iraq and afghanistan”

    Indeed. I know many of them. They are the kind of capable, dedicated, competent people that would be a great asset to any company. Except that not any company has them; The U.S. military has them by virtue of their hiring, training, promotion, and retention policies. All the things you don’t find in the whiny companies that somehow just can’t find people. I expect that many companies had a chance at these people and sniffed. Their loss.

    And dude, like if they weren’t in Iraq they would like be stationed somewhere else since they have jobs like in the military. You should try the Army. You’ll like it, dude.

  4. Perhaps it would be easier to recruit machinists if employers didn’t lay them off at the drop of a hat, especially in an environment where employers won’t train people anymore.
    Who wants to invest years in their own training for such an uncertain return?
    The antediluvian, no-dignity, heirarchical management practices of many manufacturers don’t help either.
    Whenever I see articles about ‘worker shortages’, I never see mention of the primary mechanism to increase supply of labor — increase their compensation. But “I can’t attract fully-trained people to work here at the current payscale” doesn’t make for quite as dramatic a story.

    The U.S. military has them by virtue of their hiring, training, promotion, and retention policies.
    Perhaps, but stop-loss orders and AWOL/desertion laws aren’t an option for other employers.


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