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Effectively Training New Employees During a Labor Shortage

The U.S. manufacturing industry is looking at a potential shortage of 2.4 million workers in the next decade. Here are my tips on how to overcome this shortage with more effective training.

Howard Huffman

As we dive headlong into current and pending U.S. manufacturing labor shortages, it’s critical to focus on the transfer of institutional knowledge. If this process is not handled well, it will significantly impair GDP in the very near future. That’s why training new employees quickly and documenting training processes and best practices is now vital.

But how do you do it effectively?

There is a palpable difference in education and learning styles between those who grew up in previous industrial manufacturing generations and the engineers coming out of school today. In the existing labor market—where jobs are plenty yet talented labor seems to be hard to find—the first challenge is finding talented employees. But once they’re onboard, it’s important to have processes ready to get them up to speed.

Knowledge and attitude transfer

Figuring out how to incorporate a new employee into your culture, processes, and projects can be a challenging task. The most talented employees tend to be extremely quick studies if given the tools and knowledge to be resourceful.

Training should be dependent on the assumption that the individual demonstrates an ability and willingness to learn. But the reality now is that employees need to go beyond a willingness to learn and possess the ability to pick things up very quickly, think logically, explain concepts, and figure out the details. And while technology—like the internet for searching and YouTube for how-to videos—has made information easily accessible, it’s not the end all be all. Using your brain in addition to your hands to do the work is a necessity.

Embracing an attitude of respect for what each employee brings to the table yields great results for both the individuals and the organization. Both the seasoned professional and the new employee, whether they’re a graduate or an experienced professional from another field, can combine knowledge to move forward with efficiency.

An important aspect of effective training is allowing trainees to brush up against the guardrails of failure, requiring them to use their brains and hands to do the work needed to avoid that failure.

But how do you teach that? That’s where mentorship plays a significant role. To have the opportunity to confront big challenges, while paired with an expert, is a gift to both the experienced and new employee.

Mentorship coupled with established processes

If a new employee tries and fails, the safeguard of experience is there to correct the problem, teach quickly, and move on. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you can learn from it quickly, then you fail forward and grow quickly. Additionally, the experienced employee can have their eyes opened to new possibilities of solving familiar problems. As technology changes, exposure to new systems and ways of looking at efficiency and production are valuable tools often brought to the table by new employees that can help train experienced employees.

As effective as mentorships can be, all training should not be left solely in the hands of the mentor. After all, some mentors enjoy developing people and others don’t have it in their wheelhouse. 

This is where the value of process comes into play. Consistent, repeatable, successful methods to onboarding and project/operations management pay dividends in the end. Ensuring everyone at the company has a baseline of the same information from day one ensures consistency and brings a level of comfort and stability to all new employees, whether they are just starting out or this is their fifth job.

Ultimately, when a project is backed up by process around design reviews, code reviews, factory acceptance testing (FAT), and connecting new employees with a mentor, even small failures along the way won’t negatively impact the project or process overall and can become valuable teaching moments to help new employees gain valuable experience.

Craftsmen of intellect

In all industrial work, you must have good tools, but you can’t fall in love with the tools because they change too fast. What you must do is develop intellect and fall in love with the process. 

The very best training method is recognizing that no one becomes an expert overnight. Good mentors can’t assume they know everything and, likewise, can’t assume they have to teach everything. If the experienced mentor allows for the new employee to learn from mistakes, while ensuring those mistakes don’t negatively impact projects or processes, the depth chart for the organization grows exponentially.

Dangerous assumptions about Millennials or outsiders who may not know how we “do things” still exist widely in industry. Success is about adjusting those assumptions and really pouring yourself into developing others. It may be true that they don’t know how we do it, but exploring what they do know and challenging new employees develops stronger, smarter, faster employees in the end.

Howard Huffman, PE, is president of Huffman Engineering Inc., certified members of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Huffman Engineering, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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