Where Has All the Talent Gone?

Innovative solutions to addressing the skilled labor gap

The global COVID-19 pandemic altered the world in just about every way imaginable. One of the most noteworthy was the labor shortage the pandemic left in its wake.

Visit any downtown and you’ll see “Now Hiring” posters in most fast-food chain or retail shop windows. Restaurants have hour-long (or longer) waits due to a lack of staff. And the manufacturing industry is no stranger to experiencing a lack of skilled labor.

Before the pandemic, the manufacturing industry had been struggling to find and retain talent. Now, a number of challenges exacerbated by the pandemic have made this issue worse. From a statewide shutdown to the present-day challenge of what is being termed “The Great Resignation,” manufacturers are faced with two critical questions: What are young people looking for in a manufacturing career and how do we recruit them?

For the Chelsea-based Hatch Stamping, a global manufacturer of precision metal stampings and welded assemblies for primarily the automotive industry with over 420 employees at their six Michigan facilities, their dedication to internships and apprenticeship programs as well as community involvement have definitely supported their recruitment efforts. Suzanne Morrison, Director of Marketing at Hatch, says they scaled back on internship programs in 2020 but are now aggressively ramping back up and looking to expand. Morrison credits their success in recruiting young talent to establishing effective communications.

“I really think that, no matter what avenue we are taking in recruitment the key to success is communicating what you do,” says Morrison. “As a company, we sponsor a lot of scholarships, participate in mentorship programs and provide current employees training and education opportunities. Additionally, we have continued to invest in our communities as well as the industry as a whole. We support our leadership team in participating as much as possible, for example, I serve on the  education board for the PMA (Precision Metalforming Association) as well as a member of the CTE Robotics Board in Chelsea and much more. We're always trying to find unique ways that we can communicate to individuals about the amazing things manufacturing's doing and the career opportunities available.”

That communication must have worked on Hatch employees Madison Nelson and Brandon Burris, who found their way to internships without having much exposure to or history with manufacturing. Nelson started as an intern for the Industrial Engineering department while she was still at the University of Michigan, and is now the company’s full-time buyer of raw commodities such as steel, tubing and wire. Burris started in accounts receivable while at Central Michigan University and is now the Manager of Tooling and Capital Procurement.

Burris attributes his job satisfaction and loyalty to Hatch to job flexibility and the support he received internally to explore different areas of the company.

“Support and flexibility is key,” he says. “I have a bachelor’s degree in finance and I got started in accounts receivable, but I found that that wasn't what I wanted to do. I met with my upper management at that time and laid out what I wanted and they put me on the path to get there.”

Post-pandemic studies affirm that, more than ever, employees are seeking more flexibility at their jobs. Mike Dergis, who manages recruitment for mainly industrial clients as Founder and Partner at Sigred Solutions, has spent his career helping manufacturers recruit and retain talent and is seeing the same types of themes happening within the workforce.

“Flex scheduling for shift work has been a successful method (for recruiting talent),” says Dergis. “Companies find that some of their workforces aren’t able to continue to work because of childcare issues, long-term adult-parent care issues...things like that. They found that if they could structure the shift work to create some flexibility, they were able to retain those workers. That creates loyalty.”

Generating positive word-of-mouth is still one of the best forms of advertising, especially when it comes to talent recruitment. For both Nelson and Burris, hearing good things about Hatch from family and friends was a significant motivator.

“My brother worked at Hatch at that time, so I got hooked up with (an internship through) him,” says Burris. “That was the link that got me to the manufacturing world. I've been here ever since and don't really plan to leave.”

Nelson expressed a similar sentiment. “When I was at the University of Michigan, I was looking for an internship. And obviously it's very, very competitive at U of M, so I was trying to network. I knew a few people who worked (at Hatch), so they were keeping me posted about available openings. They sent me a posting and I applied.”

She adds, “I never had thought about myself in automotive before. It was not one of my hobbies or interests previously. It was definitely something that I had to learn, but I liked it, and so I stuck with it.”

Some companies have hit a home run when it comes to new and innovative recruiting practices. Such is the case with Bridgman-based Eagle Technologies, an assembly line automation developer, that kicked off its latest apprenticeship program with an official Signing Day.

Jay Bauer, Manufacturing Manager at Eagle Technologies, says they borrowed a page from the sports world by hosting a Signing Day where they invited 21 new apprentices and their families. The event included the traditional signing of the contract, followed by plant tours for the families.

The Signing Day was a result of the company’s broader effort to revamp their recruiting efforts. What they found is that creating an event around their apprenticeship program and engaging the family helped to motivate the incoming students.

“We were able to bring their families in and show them what we do and where they'll be working and kind of get them excited about it,” says Bauer. “Having that support structure outside of Eagle is very important to keep them engaged and keep them involved. And (the apprentices) need encouragement. An apprenticeship is a difficult thing to do. You work all day and then you go to school at night. It's very demanding of personal time. It's very physically demanding. And they need that added encouragement.”

The opportunity also allowed Eagle leadership to show off their clean and modern facility in an effort to dispel that ever-present stigma around manufacturing work.

“We have a nice, clean, bright, climate-controlled environment,” says Bauer. “Signing day was an idea to bring everyone together and say let's start this off as a team and establish that support structure inside and outside of Eagle.”

Apprenticeship and internship programs play a large role in shaping the next generation of manufacturing. Adding to the momentum, legislators recently passed the largest single-year School Aid Fund in Michigan’s history, $6 million of which will be allocated to supporting the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Excellence Initiative (PRIME®). MMA has partnered with the SME Education Foundation to develop PRIME schools across the state of Michigan to support an industry facing a limited talent pipeline and misperceptions about work environments and opportunities for young people.

PRIME will be used to provide more Michigan high schools with opportunities to craft and run Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs for students interested in learning about manufacturing. This program, combined with the Going PRO Talent Fund, Michigan Reconnect, Future for Frontliners and other state-supported programs will enable manufacturers to start developing talent in a manner that provides long-term solutions to Michigan’s talent crisis.

Combating the Post-Pandemic Job Shift

The impact that COVID-19 has had on the manufacturing industry and its workforce cannot be overstated. Not only are employees not coming back to work due to extended unemployment benefits, lack of childcare and career change considerations but manufacturers are now having to compete with traditional retail which has increased hourly wages, expanded health care benefits and, in some cases, offered signing bonuses. Hourly wages for retail jobs have increased the most, relative to wages in manufacturing, since the start of 2020, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. This leaves manufacturers to compete with McDonald’s, Kohl’s and other retailers for employees.

The pandemic also fueled what has come to be known as “The Great Resignation.” Many professionals became burnt out, which led to mass reconsideration of what fulfills employees at work. According to one statistic by Prudential's latest Pulse of the American Worker Survey, 53 percent of Americans would switch to a role in an entirely new industry if they had the opportunity to retrain.

This same survey showed that among those who responded, half want higher compensation, 34 percent seek more growth opportunity at their jobs and 24 percent are tired of working on the same thing.

Dergis sees a double-edged sword when it comes to the challenges of modern-day recruiting.

“Younger generations want to see career progression. They want to see ‘what does my future with the company look like?’” says Dergis. “Then, on the other hand, most of them are going to be changing jobs every two to three years.”

Morrison goes back to manufacturing’s public profile and its traditional stigma of being dirty, backbreaking work. She says that if more people better understood what manufacturers do and how a modern-day factory looks and behaves, they would be more inclined to look for opportunities in the industry.

“The country has lost our luster for understanding how cool (manufacturing) really is,” says Morrison. “It is so much fun. I love taking people out into our plants because they're like, ‘Wow, look at all these computers. And look at these robots. And look at all these cool things you're making.’”

Building the Talent Pipeline

For years, employers have developed partnerships with school districts and community colleges to support local CTE programs. It’s an important resource for manufacturers to keep the talent pipeline ever flowing. In the post-pandemic world, many employers are looking to build and expand these partnerships.

Paul Harvey, Vice President at Engineered Machine Products (EMP), is one who believes strongly in investing in internal and external education to prepare youth for jobs in manufacturing today. The Escanaba-based EMP produces mechanical and electrical pumps, fans and thermal management systems for transportation industries.

“Michigan Technological University, one of the top engineering schools in the country, is just north of our headquarters,” says Harvey when explaining his organization’s recruitment strategies. “We have a great relationship with them, as well as Bay College.”

He adds, “[Bay College] has the quick insight and ability to put together programs that we may need in manufacturing, technology, robotics and automation skills. Whatever we need, they can put those programs together for us very effectively. They have been a great partner for our company.”

EMP also provides financial support to nearby high schools to create programs preparing youth for jobs in manufacturing.

“We financially support robotics programs at Escanaba High School, Gladstone High School, Bark River High School and Mid-Peninsula High School,” says Harvey. “Through partnering, we use our engineers and our key technical people who have an interest in supporting and helping train these robotic teams. This method has been very well accepted by the high schools.”

Long-term, the idea is that the youth they train through these programs will one day return for a job. “Hopefully, these kids will continue to think of EMP. If they're interested down the road and we have a fit, they'll come back to work for us someday.”

Supporting and partnering with high school-based robotics programs has proven to be a successful pathway to cultivating young talent. Take, for example, Tom and Dana Lockwood, the husband-and-wife duo who founded the Hemlock Public Schools’ robotics team in 2014. Since that time, they’ve partnered with a number of regional manufacturers that have supported the program, which eventually led to the opening of the Lockwood STEM Center facility in June.

Learning robotics is a perfect stepping stone into manufacturing/engineering fields as it covers a variety of those disciplines from machining, math, computer science, mechanical systems, data science and more, according to Tom, who recently retired as Hemlock’s technology director.

“These are valuable skill sets that the kids become familiar with and, up until now, they've had no exposure to,” says Tom. “Things like cutting metal, deburring it, attaching fasteners. There are learning opportunities available for a wide variety of students.”

Tom and Dana learned more about the critical need for skilled labor when they started approaching local businesses for support of the facility. They found immediate interest from companies like Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation, which sponsors an engineering youth camp at Michigan Tech University, and Dow Chemical Company, which sponsors a spinal surgery robotics program. What they also found was an industry eager to motivate high school students to explore STEM-oriented careers.

“I believe the national number of STEM jobs currently in demand is around 2.4 million. In the manufacturing world, you just can’t get enough employees,” says Tom.

Creating more of a direct pipeline to internships and apprenticeships with area manufacturing companies is the next step for the team, according to Dana, who is a business teacher in the district.

“We have an amazing mentorship program with several adults (from area businesses) who have stepped into those roles,” says Dana. “The kids are learning firsthand from people who are trained in those particular areas.”

Moving Forward

The manufacturing world of yesterday looks vastly different from the manufacturing world of today and tomorrow. The industry is constantly evolving. What makes a job appealing to young talent is changing simultaneously with the needs of current employees.

“It's about building a culture,” says Paul Harvey from EMP. “A culture where you feel good about going to work and you know you're doing a good thing and that the company recognizes your contributions.”

Increased investment in programs to prepare high schoolers for modern-day manufacturing jobs, coupled with training opportunities and increased flexibility for current employees are some of the best strategies to recruit and retain talent today.

However, without a positive work culture, retaining these employees will be a struggle. Companies have to put in the work to make their employees feel heard and appreciated in order to foster staff loyalty and retain talent.

If a company can do all of that, they are well on their way to recruiting and retaining a full, qualified staff in this post-COVID world.

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