Recognizing Workforce Solutions to Navigate Talent Challenges

This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

Today’s workforce is increasingly dynamic and selective, so finding the right talent and keeping those individuals motivated may require creative solutions.

With that in mind, Michigan manufacturers are supporting current team members and future hires to keep them inspired, happy and engaged.

Manufacturers looking for solutions for workforce development and talent acquisition have many resources they can turn to through MMA, state and federal agencies and online resources (see right).

Overcoming talent-related challenges requires using creativity and employing strategic efforts but businesses can reap many benefits by adopting best practices being executed successfully at companies across the state.

Visibility in the Community

Reaching out to high schools, trade schools and colleges can make a difference once those individuals are ready to enter the workforce. Additionally, changing the perception of the industry is a key aspect of growing interest in manufacturing jobs.

Brian Sheets, Executive Director of Employee Development, Quality Assurance, Customer Service and Community Relations at Avalon & Tahoe Manufacturing, says they make a strong effort to get involved in colleges and schools.

“Hopefully we’ll be at the top of their list when they’re looking for employment when they come out of school and see skilled trades as a viable option,” Sheets says.

For instance, as a luxury pontoon builder, Avalon needs specialized welders and sewers — professionals who can be almost impossible to find without creative efforts. Instead of commercial sewers, they’re finding “hobby sewers” today but they’re trying to change that, Sheets says.

“We’re working with community colleges and tech centers in the area to incorporate and develop a sewing program as part of the technical skills and training to help not only our company but others as well,” he says.

Sheets offers several examples of career fairs and community events that are focused on the skilled trades.

“You have all these companies together not just trying to get people to come to their company, but also collectively trying to get kids excited about skilled trades,” he says. “It’s a shift that’s happening slowly, but I believe the pendulum is moving in a positive way.”

Workforce Development Opportunities

Manufacturers are seeing a shifting paradigm where young adults are recognizing a greater number of options for careers and education than they have in past decades.

Cobra MOTO/Cobra AERO, LLC is one company that has successfully developed work-based learning programs to get students in the door. They also place a lot of value on keeping skilled workers motivated through education and training opportunities.

“As a small company, we foster that in a big way,” says Sean Hilbert, President of Cobra, adding that they offer tuition reimbursement and paid time off for classes. “We’re very amenable on the one side and very aggressive on the other side for making sure employees have the resources they need to upskill themselves.”

Upskilling and training opportunities are especially important as the entire Baby Boomer generation approaches retirement age in the next five to six years, says Sheena Sigler, Director of Talent and Operations for Cobra.

“Even though they have big shoes to fill with these retiring individuals, it’s not the same role we’re looking to fill,” Sigler says. “The positions are changing and evolving as quickly as people are retiring. It’s not necessary for replacements to have the exact same skillsets and experiences.”

For his part, Sheets is seeing a renewed interest in skilled trades careers and they’ve created more training opportunities for students to match that heightened awareness.

“Not all students want to go to college. There’s a great opportunity in the manufacturing world for employment right out of high school,” he says.

Sheets says Avalon has a robust training program and they encourage team members to pursue higher education and certifications while they work. In fact, Avalon has found that training, specifically cross-training, is a key to keeping team members excited about their futures with the company, he says.

If new hires do not have advanced training but are a good fit, they will receive training in-house alongside individuals who do have expertise in the specific niche or other areas of the company that the new hire may be interested in. Once the new hires feel confident and competent enough, they can be tested for an opportunity to advance from within the company, he says, adding that this model keeps new hires inspired.

Sheets says they also have a training library of over 130 resources, an online portal and a training kiosk that team members can use to advance their knowledge base. He says they also have taken advantage of online training available through the MMA.

Business leaders have found that while cross-training is crucial, strategically rethinking how succession plans work has been helpful as well.

“Instead of being competitive for your job, such as saying, ‘I don’t want anyone to know what I do or how I do it,’ we support and encourage you to try to work yourself out of a job,” Sheets says. “If you wait until a person retires, it’s too late. You have to plan now for who is going to be the next person to fill that position for you.”

Addressing Shifting Workplace Trends

A peculiar trend many businesses are experiencing is that of “ghosting.” In many cases, individuals accept jobs and never show up, or they might work for a couple weeks and then disappear without providing any notice.

Employee turnover has been especially hard post-pandemic, Sheets says, and this concept only adds fuel to the fire.

“We’re not doing anything differently, but there seems to be a different ethic in the workforce,” he says.

Just like they are making efforts to make themselves visible in the community and grow interest in the skilled trades, Cobra and Avalon are among the many Michigan companies identifying solutions to these issues as well.

Sigler says Cobra is addressing it by creating a “cool place to work.”

“We focus a lot on culture and giving employees the opportunity to pursue their passions,” she says. “We are creating an environment that makes people want to come to work for us.”

Making sure students and other job seekers understand how technology will continue to change jobs is another key to developing future leaders.

For instance, the power of 3D printing technology is growing exponentially, which means more jobs will be needed in the future.

“One of the challenges is finding a workforce that is trained around technologies that in some ways aren’t even here yet,” Hilbert says.

However, if you can find ways to do so, it can be beneficial not only for businesses but the employees as well, he says.

Finding Talent: Resources that Make a Difference

Everyday job sites can be useful and helpful in their own rights, but the manufacturing industry needs individuals with very specific skillsets who can fill niche roles. Popular resources and tools to find such workers include MichiganWorks! and the state GoingPRO Talent Fund.

Sheets says they have found the MichiganWorks! MiCareerQuest resource and the federally funded Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center especially helpful.

Additional resources Cobra uses are the Ann Arbor Spark economic development services organization and STEMForward, a Wisconsin-based organization whose goal is to inspire a future-ready STEM workforce.

“We do post online, attend job fairs and do all those things, but working outside of those normal avenues via STEMForward has proven successful for us,” Sigler says.

She says there are many more resources for workforce development available than businesses may know. Additionally, she says businesses can benefit from investing in their current staff through training and allowing them to pursue their passions.

“People are looking for more than benefits and pay,” Sheets says. “They’re looking for a place where they belong, where they can grow, where they have opportunities.”

Businesses that are looking to expand their workforces, create workforce development opportunities and develop transition plans have many resources available. Creativity and community involvement can be keys to staying ahead of the curve as they try to recognize and address the needs of this changing workforce.

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