Chances are, at this point, you won’t be shocked if I tell you that manufacturing is facing a shortage of skilled workers. Yes, we’ve heard it before plenty of times. What is it, something like 600,000 unfilled positions in manufacturing? Meanwhile, how many engineers are out of work, or perhaps have become “consultants” for the industry? Sorry if I’m overly skeptical, but I still have trouble wrapping my head around this concept. I still feel like there must be some disconnect in which employers are expecting too much for too little.
But every time I broach this skepticism in a public forum (industry conferences, user groups, trade shows, etc.), people are typically insistent that it’s not about the pay; it has more to do with trouble finding the right skill sets. Many industry professionals bemoan the state of an education system that isn’t preparing students for real-world jobs, or in some cases the complaints are about Millenials and their over-inflated sense of entitlement.
The range of workforce concerns came up repeatedly at the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) Executive Conference last month. As Alan Beaulieu, president of ITR Economics, reported in his presentation about “prosperity in the age of decline,” job growth is good, and there are still more job openings. “We want more people,” he said. “We can’t find more people with the right skills, with the right attitude, who can pass the drug test.”
The industry is going to have to be prepared to boost wages and health benefits, Beaulieu said. “We’re going to have to pay every team member more as we go forward because we can’t find good people…because educationally we’re not producing them. And we’ll have to spend more on training,” he said. Inflation will also factor into that. “Your business plan has to incorporate paying people more and more and more each year. Their standard of living is going to go down if you don’t start paying them more, or they’re going to get poached by your competitors.”
But the system integrators that I spoke with during the conference insisted that wages weren’t really the issue. Soaking up the San Diego sun at lunch one day, a couple system integrators confirmed how much harder it is these days to find the talent they need. They talked of situations in which integrators had to turn down big jobs because they simply couldn’t get the talent they needed to get the jobs done. One told me that he could see a distinct difference in available candidates just within the past 5-6 years. He was concerned about not only the dearth of candidates available, but also the available candidates not having the right skills.
And let’s talk about those “right skills,” by the way. It’s not just the technical knowledge—the ability to program and troubleshoot, the knowledge of products and standards. This particular system integrator acknowledged the need to keep some of his engineers away from customers because they lacked the social skills necessary to interface with clients. Finding engineers who could also communicate well with co-workers and customers was a challenge.
Gina Coleal, human resources and organizational development for TEC Systems Group in Wichita, Kan., stressed the growing value of such “soft skills” in her presentation at the CSIA conference. As difficult a time as manufacturing and system integration companies might be having filling positions, they need to take the time to find employees with the important soft skills. “Just changing some small things, asking more behavior-based questions, can really make the difference in who you’re bringing on board,” she said.
Coleal talked about the idea of looking at will vs. skill in candidates. “We always look for high will. They don’t have to be the highest skilled programmer or controls engineer,” she said. “We had a guy that came in with five years of engineering, but not controls experience. We changed our approach, and asked a lot of behavior-based questions. He was somebody who had high will and high EQ [emotional intelligence quotient]. Already, after a year, he’s one of our highest performers. How he gets things done far exceeds somebody we had on the team for 10-15 years.”
Companies can always send their employees to a supplier course or a programming course, Coleal emphasized. “It’s harder to teach somebody the soft skills.”
For TEC Systems, soft skills aren’t just an important consideration in hiring, but in promotion and compensation as well, Coleal said. “When we think about promotion, we usually think about technical skills,” she said. “You need to think about what soft skills you want that person to have and how they should develop throughout their career.”
TEC Systems’ compensation plan is designed around soft skills, Coleal explained. “Merit increases are based on will-based performance,” she said, explaining that it’s not just how a person programs, but how he communicates on a project, whether he stays late to complete a project, whether he anticipates customer needs, is forward thinking, etc. “Merit increases are designed to reward on will, not just skill. If you just have the skill, you won’t get the increase.”
The bottom line for employee development, according to Coleal:
- Invest in your people.
- Make it important to your organization and commit for the long haul.
- Adjust your hiring strategy.
- Assess skills.
- Invest in learning and development.
- Create programs geared toward the development and reward of soft skills.
- Evaluate and measure your progress.