How Can Manufacturing Solve the Labor Crisis? Think Differently.
The manufacturing workforce today is different than the workforce of just a few years ago. And if manufacturers want to attract and retain employees, they must adapt.
That was the resounding message from a panel of manufacturing leaders speaking at the Oct. 6 Connecticut Workforce Summit, hosted by CBIA, affiliates ReadyCT and CONNSTEP, and Social Venture Partners Connecticut, and sponsored by General Dynamics Electric Boat.
Connecticut’s labor shortage crisis was central to the discussion moderated by Dave Smith, vice president of global EHS governance at Stanley Black & Decker, and featuring Shawn Coyne, vice president of human resources at Electric Boat, Burke Aerospace president Brittany Isherwood, and OKAY Industries president and CEO Jason Howey [pictured above, left to right].
The recently released CBIA/Marcum 2022 Survey of Connecticut Business revealed that 85% of business leaders experienced difficulty finding and/or retaining employees, while 39% said the lack of skilled applicants is the greatest obstacle to growth.
Smith pointed out that the labor shortage was not a new issue in Connecticut.
He noted that the state was one of just a few that failed to recovered all jobs lost during the 2008-2010 recession—there are 57,000 fewer people employed here today than in March 2008.
However, Connecticut has a near-record 113,000 job openings, 41% more than before the pandemic. If every unemployed person was hired tomorrow, 35,200 positions would remain unfilled.
There are an estimated 11,000 job openings in the state’s manufacturing sector, which has grappled for years with mitigating the impacts of an aging workforce and what’s described as a “silver tsunami” of retirements.
That’s one of numerous factors driving the broader labor shortage, many of which are structural and predate the pandemic, with COVID-19 catapulting many of those issues back into the spotlight.
And while the pandemic boosted the state’s population, Connecticut’s long-term population growth remains modest—with the high costs of living and running a business significant factors.
Smith noted that the talent pipeline feeding manufacturing and the trades also weakened, as more parents encouraged their children to go to college.
Isherwood said smaller companies like Burke Aerospace were less prepared than large companies for the rapid acceleration of product demand after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Coyne told an audience of government, nonprofit, and business leaders and students from Hartford Public High School that manufacturers now compete against other industries, particularly the logistics sector, for talent.
“We weren’t competing with them for a long time,” he said. “But we are now.”
Howey said that after the pandemic, many people chose not to go back to work due to difficulties finding affordable childcare.
“A lot of dual income families said, ‘you know what, the cost of childcare is outrageous, and it’s almost better for one of us to stay home,'” he said.
“There’s a lot of legislation looking at how to help with childcare, because that is a major deterrent to people coming back into the workforce, without question.”
Howey also referenced CBIA’s new Transform Connecticut policy package, which offers solutions for building a stronger, more equitable economy.
Smith noted that manufacturing must work harder to attract more young people earlier, including greater collaboration with the public sector and nonprofit organizations.
“There’s reason to believe that exposure to manufacturing careers—if done early—can have an impact,” he said.
Coyne agreed, noting that Electric Boat has K-12 programs developed with funding through federal and state government programs.
Isherwood added that Burke Aerospace leveraged partnerships with local schools and offered apprenticeships and even full time jobs.
She also recommended that students join groups such as the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
“There’s a great pipeline with resources at the national level, and we can bring people into Connecticut,” she said.
Howey said there was great talent and activity at technical schools, but there is just not enough people, leading companies to compete for the same students.
In response, his company has worked more with comprehensive high schools.
OKAY Industries raised and invested more than $700,000 at New Britain High School to upgrade their manufacturing and engineering technology lab, Howey said.
“If you were there about five years ago it looked like it was about 1943,” he said.
“You need to have that new equipment because it’s the eye candy. It’s what the next generation wants.”
Isherwood leveraged support from organizations like CONNSTEP and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology for innovation technology grants that make the Farmington-based manufacturer more interesting and exciting to potential job applicants.
She said these grants have “really helped a small business be able to get to the next level to attract younger folks.”
Electric Boat collaborates with the Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, a partnership of manufacturers and public sector entities that trains people with no prior trade skills.
“It started out as a small effort, but the scale of that program now is essential to our business,” Coyne said.
“Last year we had 1,000 people just at Electric Boat come through that program, and this year we’re on track for 1,600 people.”
To Howey, leadership is key, referencing OKAY’s collaboration with Central Connecticut State University and programs that help the unemployed and underemployed.
“As businesses we have to lead,” he said. “We can’t just sit back, and we have to go out and engage with others to fix our workforce, or we’re in trouble.”
Howey added that the manufacturing sector has done a poor job investing in leadership, with renewed focus needed to retain employees.
Smith described his experiences interacting with returning citizens, and how there are biases against this group.
“Not giving returning citizens a chance is a missed opportunity,” he said. “These men and women can do the work.
“We could be rejecting a significant part of our future workforce. The loyalty you gain is the same because you take the time to trust in and invest in them.”
The conversation then shifted to practices the panelists recommended against.
Howey said putting a person with no mechanical aptitude in front of manufacturing machinery can be a costly process.
“If you put a person through a four-year apprenticeship program for a tool and die machine, it costs an employer about $150,000,” he said.
“If you don’t have people with the right mechanical aptitude, right cognitive skills, and even some of the right behavioral traits, you’re going to fail.”
Isherwood warned against “selling” a job, instead of effectively communicating what the job entails.
“Let’s make sure we’re clear, honest, and set the right expectations,” she said.
“If you try to sell somebody a job that they don’t want to be at, or that may not be exactly what they see as their future, they’re only going to last a few months,” she said.
Coyne added that having just the HR department handle the hiring process could end poorly, as job responsibilities and requirements may not always be accurately described to applicants.
Instead, he recommends having a direct manager who knows the specifics of the job directly involved in the process.
Isherwood has one word that guides Burke Aerospace’s retention strategies: purpose.
“You’re at work more than you see your family,” she said. “And if you’re not happy doing that, your life is miserable.
She added that it was critical to check in with employees weekly to give and receive feedback about what they need to be successful.
“We need to adapt to the new needs and wants of the world,” she said.
Coyne said the most critical factor for retention was creating a healthy work-life balance for people with their first jobs, along with people hired in the middle of their careers.
“It’s the simple soft skills, like how you treat people, that I think are super important,” he said.
Howey described workplace culture as the single most important retention factor.
“Doubling down on culture is the most important thing all businesses should be doing,” he said.
Howey also said that employees, particularly younger workers, need career growth plans.
“They want to see what their development plans are,” he said.
“They want to see where they’re going to be tomorrow, next year, and the year after that.”
Affordability, Quality of Life
Smith asked about the major obstacles employees faced both inside and out of the workplace, and how panelists addressed those concerns.
A third of business leaders told the CBIA/Marcum survey that the state’s cost of living was the top concern for employees and their families, followed by taxes (20%), healthcare (18%), and the economy (17%).
Isherwood responded that Burke Aerospace implemented a Friday-Sunday shift to accommodate employees with childcare needs or want to be with their families more during the week.
She said it helped to cut down on overtime costs and to keep their manufacturing operations running 24/7.
Coyne said Electric Boat has various employee resource groups representing workers with similar backgrounds and interests.
“There’s so many wins with that, from building diversity, and they also go out to help us with a lot of our community events,” he said.
A Matter of Perspective
OKAY Industries is using diversified job boards and programs like Project SEARCH, which provides education and training to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Howey also encouraged employers to change their perspective on the new generation of workers.
He explained that some employers complained that the younger generation “does not want to work hard and spends too much time on their phones.”
“But whether you guys know it or not, you all helped create them,” he said.
“The thing is, you just have to change your strategy—engage. They want to work, they want to do things.
“I think if you take a young person with technology skills which is way above ours, they can actually put in process improvements and do things that you never even thought of, because they come from an entirely different perspective.”
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