First of a three-part webinar series focuses on preparing for the manufacturing workforce of the future
Among the ever-shifting business environment impacting manufacturers, perhaps some of the largest effects have come from the workforce itself. Today’s workers are increasingly demanding higher salaries, more flexibility in their workday, and heightened engagement throughout the business itself. And there’s mounting evidence these trends will continue in the years ahead. To compete, manufacturers need to adapt their culture, training, systems, and offerings to attract the next generation of workers to their shop floors.
“As manufacturers, we need to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them,” said Terry Hossink, Vice President of Manufacturing Services at The Right Place. “The last several years too much has changed. I want people to understand that manufacturing is not just pushing parts around and just in time deliveries. Manufacturing today is an evolving industry making things for the modern world. Manufacturers are solving the problems of today and tomorrow, and doing it in a way that’s cleaner, better, and more efficient than ever before.”
Hossink joined other manufacturing and human resource experts in the first installment of the 2022 webinar series “Build for Now, Build for Future: Workforce Strategies for Manufacturers,” hosted by MiBiz and The Right Place Inc. The three-part series is dedicated to providing actionable, real-world information and strategies to help West Michigan manufacturers grow and develop their workforce.
In this first webinar, experts discussed various tactics and resources manufacturers can use to prepare and attract the coming generations of talent.
One of the most effective strategies manufacturers can deploy to develop their workforce is to become involved in the community. Engaging with the community, education system, and students are all essential elements for building the foundations for the next generation of workers.
Sara Whisler, human resources manager at FlexFab LLC, relies on a number of different avenues for engagement. The Hastings-based manufacturer of silicon tubing hosts job fairs and facility tours for a variety of ages. During the tours, Whisler stresses to students that manufacturing is not the dingy, grimy world of the past. She also makes it a point to show the numerous different career paths in manufacturing including human resources, safety, engineering, and product design.
“It’s getting the word out that there’s more to do in a manufacturing facility besides production,” Whisler said during the webinar.
Whisler also co-chairs Discover Manufacturing, a regional network of West Michigan manufacturers, focusing on talent attraction, training, and promoting manufacturing as a career. Discover Manufacturing offers an “Adopt a School” program where employers can establish a partnership with educators and students. According to the webinar panel, connecting with a group like Discover Manufacturing can alleviate some of the effort and time it takes for companies to seek out these partnerships on their own.
In addition to these strategies, FlexFab offers a summer employment program for recent high school graduates. The program is first open to children and friends of its employees, then the general public, and offers roles throughout the organization including safety, engineering, and others. Whisler noted the goal of the initiative is to establish a relationship with these recent graduates and eventually recruit them, whether that’s immediately or after the students finish college.
“It’s a good way to showcase and connect (students) with what manufacturing is involved with,” Whisler said.
Part of the challenge comes from convincing parents that manufacturing offers a safe, rewarding and lucrative career for their children, instead of the windowless, smoke and grease filled plants of the past.
During the webinar, Lisa Hungerford, director of education innovation at Talent 2025, noted that parent engagement is challenging across the education system. However, manufacturers have a rougher road because of how the industry is perceived. To compensate, some companies host dinners at their facilities where they directly connect with parents and show them first hand that manufacturing is a viable, modern career.
Ultimately though, the best way to shift parent perspectives on manufacturing is for them to see their children excited about a career in the industry, the panelists said.
“Once a student gets in, sees the value, the opportunity and gets excited then it goes back to mom and dad,” Hungerford said. “When it’s something the student had a positive experience with, that's when the dinner time conversations happen. Definitely increasing those opportunities for students to get those real world experiences outside the classroom is imperative.”
While manufacturers must prepare their systems and culture to fit the coming generation of talent, those upcoming workers also need to possess the skills required in a modern manufacturing environment. To aid in this, many educators are increasingly turning toward more project-based and collaborative learning to prepare students and get them excited for manufacturing. Educators are integrating real-world examples of theoretical concepts into the curriculum to better show students how those concepts may be applied in the business. When students can see the relevance of what they’re learning, engage with it hands-on and be excited, that is a recipe for life-long interest in manufacturing and technical-related fields, Hungerford said.
In addition to technical expertise, manufacturers also need students with so-called “soft skills.” While a company can train an entry-level worker on a technology, machine or process, teaching them to be reliable collaborators, communicators, and good employees in general, is something that’s not always as straightforward.
“While technology really enhances that analytical capacity, it can’t adapt or solve problems without human direction,” Hungerford said. “That’s the value of human capital because they’re uniquely human and can’t be replicated by automation.”
The workforce development question can seem daunting to manufacturers, and for good reason. Many of the successful strategies of the past have been rendered ineffective by global events and economic trends. To navigate these new waters, each manufacturer will need to contend with answering that question on their own terms, in a way that best fits their organization. However, if one thing is for certain, it’s a question that will persist into the future.
Watch the recording of the webinar here
Download the webinar notes here