It’s Not a Skills Gap: Developing Work Culture in Manufacturing
By: Aimee Sukol, JD/MA/MS Ed.
US manufacturers have identified a limited labor supply as a key challenge over the past decade. In response, local and state governments have developed training programs to steer new generations towards the trades and yet, in spite of these programs, manufacturers continue to face a worker shortage. Our last article posited that training programs may not be addressing the root problem, which is cultural differences between those who comprise and lead the manufacturing industry and the younger labor pool. This article challenges the notion that training programs are a solution for two reasons: 1) training programs may not attract enough young candidates if the trade itself is not sufficiently appealing and 2) provided youth graduate from a trade program, cultural differences may spark employee dissatisfaction and result in turnover.
The following discussion is an extension of an overall evaluation of challenges US manufacturers face from the post-Depression Era, the peak of manufacturing in the 1950’s and 60’s, and through offshoring and trade agreements that became more common after the 70’s. The primary purpose of this article is to provide small and mid-size manufacturers with insight and tools for evaluating work culture and recruiting employees.
- Context: Brief Recap
- What’s Next?
- Internal Assessment, Discussion
- Work Culture
- Implementing Changes: Work Culture Strategic Plan
- Internal Assessment, Discussion
- Recruitment Messaging
Recapping the Conversation:
The recurring issue in economic development is that manufacturers are struggling to find young workers interested in the trades. I find this issue particularly interesting in light of my graduate work as an MS in Education, teacher in high schools and middle schools, and my work with manufacturers over seven years. Believe me when I tell you that the skills gap is not why young workers eschew manufacturing. While there have been changes within manufacturing to include new capabilities and equipment, the culture continues to operate in the 20th century. Meanwhile, youth culture has changed dramatically over 20 years, and rather than re-examine that discussion I encourage you to read my article on generational gaps between the new workforce and manufacturing. There I laid out the history of manufacturing, Millennial and Gen Z demographics, and a conversation on what employers should consider when recruiting the younger generation.
This article takes the conversation another step further where I walk manufacturers through developing a work culture. Between the linked article and information below, I seek to equip manufacturers so they are better positioned to compete and survive. I also included links to two articles that support my argument that generational gaps, (not skill gaps) are at issue and I believe manufacturers will glean considerable insight by reading them.
A thoughtful Work Culture Strategic Plan begins with critical self analysis before looking outward to external expectations and values. The self assessment model below will help a company determine how close it is to offering an appealing work culture to younger employees. Some companies have an existing framework for recruiting/retaining younger workers while others will need to dig deeper and address fundamental business practices and assumptions. Nothing here implies some companies are good and others bad. This article is to support and help companies that struggle with recruitment, and if it takes us on the rough road through self-analysis, then the Rockies we shall go.
- Examine the company’s mission and vision: How does the company define itself? A company built through the lens of a team effort expressed in mission and/or visions statements is more likely to see value in teamwork. Perhaps just as important, a company that envisions itself as an evolving team is more likely to attract evolving labor supplies.
- Identify the relationship between a company’s mission and vision statements and its values. How do values reflect an identity? A company will showcase its identity through what it values, which are demonstrated through operations. In cases of next generation recruitment, there can be misalignment of values because the company identifies with and holds onto habits not shared by younger generations. I addressed Millennial and Gen Z culture in the last article to assist with this effort.
- Compare the mission/vision statement and company values with operations. How are values expressed in daily operations? A self assessment can reveal whether a company is living its values in a number of ways, for example, valuing worker diversity, ensuring clear communication for different kinds of learners, recognizing efforts and improvement, or participating in community programs that interest workers.
- Existing work culture is a byproduct of a company’s identity, values and operations. These components separately and collectively impact a company’s health and capacity to recruit/retain workers and meet customer demand.
Fundamentally, what these four points aim to resolve is whether a company’s identity, values and operations can evolve from one generation to the next so that work culture is an environment where diverse workers want to be.
Examine the company’s mission and vision statements. How does the company define itself?
While not all labor intensive companies refer to “our” or “we” in their missions, they never say “I”. As they say, there is no “I” in “team”. A mission statement summarizes what a company is and its purpose. Out of 20 random machine shop mission statements, 80% referenced a collective effort with the terms “we” and “our,” and 30% referenced employees, team, or work environment specifically.
Equally important is the type of team with which a company identifies. US manufacturing is over a century old and thrived in the 50’s and 60’s. Companies regardless of age or size can evolve through the will of management; however, if the company wants to shove round, triangle, or oval pegs into square holes, it will experience problems.
When manufacturing (any company) looks in the mirror, what does it see?
Identify the relationship between a company’s mission and vision statements and its values. How does the way a company defines itself reflect its values?
Companies that define themselves as a team effort typically show it by valuing employee satisfaction, feedback, needs, interests and success. Moreover, a company that envisions itself as a homogenous team will place value on some employees at the expense of others. Alternatively, a company that sees itself as a collection of diverse people, will value that diversity and will show it.
Compare the mission/vision statement and company values with operations. How do identity and values influence operations?
The starting point, where a company defines itself as a collective effort, impacts its values. The existence and frequency of certain symptoms of dysfunction highlight whether companies live their values through daily operations.
Operations that do not reflect the value of diversity will lack tools necessary for workers to succeed. Examples include unclear communication, limited instruction, misaligned or unreasonable expectations, lack of recognition, misaligned benefits, and apathetic or hostile work atmosphere. When operations have been essentially infected with the absence of inclusive team values, the following symptoms of dysfunction arise:
- High turnover
- Level and frequency of mistakes
- Indifference to customer needs
- Lack of staff reliability (calling out, showing up late)
- Disruptions to production caused by worker conflict
As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”. Operations is the most useful measurement of a company’s ethos.
Existing work culture is a byproduct of a company’s identity, values and operations. These components separately and collectively impact a company’s health and capacity to recruit/retain workers and meet customer demand.
To attract a labor pool that emphasizes work culture, a company must examine its internal structure and when challenged with symptoms of dysfunction, should conduct an audit going backwards to the source of the problem. Companies that do not experience dysfunction, should nonetheless audit themselves and leverage the results in recruitment and messaging.
Implementing Changes: Building a Work Culture Strategic Plan
The “skills gap” explanation for what may seem a lack of young skilled workers is misleading and places the onus on building a workforce on parents and educators, who in fact cannot control whether working in a factory with a punch in/out, limited collaboration, and/or rote environment is appealing to workers of the 21st century.
Ben Casselman argues that manufacturers often seek more than basic math proficiency (math illiteracy is a problem across industries in the United States), but rather detailed skills that require on the job training. He further argues that manufacturing does not offer compensation levels necessary to compel younger workers into the industry. My last article covered cost of living and compensation for Portland Metro and Oregon across industries and revealed that manufacturing offers more than retail, but below other industries. Compensation is absolutely a work culture issue especially if workers feel underpaid.
In this next section, I created work culture planning templates as guides for developing a recruitment and retention plan around new generation workers. I encourage you to review my last article that covers Millennial and Gen Z demographics and interests in order to compare and assess alignment between work culture and expectations.
A Work Culture Strategic Plan should include the following considerations:
- What/who is my target?
- What do I know about this target?
- What values do I share with this target?
- Is my work culture consistent with my target’s interests and motivations?
- If yes, how can I maintain this work culture and continue to build it?
- If no, where are the largest gaps, can they be closed, and how do I close them?
Methods for measuring and tracking efforts to build and maintain a work culture:
Key Performance Indicators help align goals, objectives, actions and measurements to track achievements. Using KPI to recruit and retain employees will help companies identify what works and what doesn’t.
Goals Charts help identify big picture ideas that form the basis of objectives and metrics outlined in a KPI.
Venn Diagrams allow companies to visualize how their teams interact and where issues may be lurking. By incorporating the results of employee surveys into a Venn diagram, a company can better identify problem areas.
The Bottom Line:
Visuals help employers articulate and measure their company culture, which is important to younger workers who are often motivated by their physical environment.
This last section will focus on messaging and how employers can appeal to younger workers.
Transparency: A cardinal rule in recruitment is transparency: Did the employer accurately describe a job, work culture, compensation or other factors? For example, telling a candidate that your company works as a team, but your employee satisfaction survey indicated otherwise will send a message by week three when a new hire witnesses worker dynamics and begins to worry whether taking a job with the company was a mistake.
Job Announcements: Companies often showcase their pride in the work culture and environment they offer employees. Job announcements will reference perks and use language that implies enthusiasm. Sample job announcements are available through a Google search and I recommend companies review announcements posted on Craigslist or other platforms to see how other manufacturers describe jobs and company benefits.
A few job announcement tips:
- Include the name of your company. If for nothing else, a job seeker must be careful about their own safety and will want to know whether the job poster is legitimate.
- Start off with a few sentences about your company and what it does. It helps to frame your work in the context of a bigger picture such as, “Our products can be found in computers worldwide.”
- Job responsibilities should outline the most important skills necessary to complete the work. Announcements that list every single function can be overwhelming to the reader. It’s best to discuss those details in the interview.
- Write a few sentences about the company culture and the type of candidate that will thrive in the position. For example, “X company is part of a large supply chain that works around a tight schedule so our customers and their customers move products to you, the end consumer. Our work relies on our team to notice details, ask questions, and – of utmost importance – be dependable.” Without sounding negative, that language sends a clear message to a job seeker that your company will not tolerate workers who let mistakes slide and/or show up late.
Ratings: Messaging may be beyond a company’s control if a disgruntled employee leaves a negative rating on Glassdoor or Google Reviews. One way to mitigate negative and promote positive reviews is to hold exit interviews with workers. Do your best to see that employees leave on good terms so that even if they choose not to leave a positive rating, at least they aren’t leaving a negative one.
Work Culture: Messaging isn’t difficult when the company can point to work culture and let it speak for itself. The most important task is to assess the company work culture and how it compares to what the desired workforce wants, implement changes, and leverage those advantages. Absent genuine reflection, a company will struggle and end up herding whoever they can find in the door, and often with disappointing results.
A company’s most valuable asset is its workforce. The labor market – like any other market – responds to trends, so if more than two decades pass before manufacturing starts re-investing in domestic production, it should not be a surprise that the labor supply isn’t abundantly available. Fortunately, there is a solution, which is very simple: work environments should respond to worker interests. Use the links in this article to learn more about younger workers and put together a management team to plan a Work Culture Strategic Plan.
I wish all manufacturers much success and please feel free to contact me with questions about the above material. It also goes without saying that Meta Fab, Inc. has an incredible team that can help those seeking precision sheet metal services.