unPACKed with OEM Podcast: Help Wanted, and Fast!

Listen to the inaugural unPACKed with OEM podcast for Stephanie Neil's expert insight on the issues causing manufacturing to continue to have a hard time filling well-paying, career-level positions.

It’s 2021, and we are hopefully approaching the tail end of a global pandemic that shuttered businesses and eliminated thousands of jobs. Despite these factors, the packaging and processing workforce continues to struggle to fill career-providing positions. OEM Magazine Editor in Chief Stephanie Neil joins the inaugural unPACKed with OEM Magazine and goes beyond the numbers and data points to get to the real crux of the issues causing manufacturing to continue to have a hard time filling well-paying positions. She also provides added perspective with her expert-level knowledge of women in the workforce due to her prominent leadership role in PMMI’s Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network

To subscribe and find more unPACKED podcast episodes, visit pmmi.org/podcast

   Read the full transcript below

Sean Riley:

Steph, today I want to talk about the workforce. With this always being an issue — that is manufacturing having a hard time despite having these pretty good career-level jobs open for what feels like years—I can't imagine that the last 16 months, or 17 months has helped the situation at all. To start with, how has that impacted the manufacturing workplace, the it being this little pandemic thing we're going through?

Stephanie Neil:

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, the workforce situation has gone from bad to worse.

Riley:

Awesome.

Neil:

I'm actually working on a story right now that is looking at this 2021 manufacturing talent study that just came out in May from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. The pandemic erased 1.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs. That is after it took us about six years to successfully add 600,000 jobs. We've recouped some of those jobs, but there's still about a half a million jobs that are unfilled in U.S. Manufacturing. That keeps us on track to that number that's always bandied about, about the 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. We hear that all the time. But the study also talked about the fact that, and this went out between December and February to about 800 manufacturing professionals in all different industries, not just packaging and processing, so we have to think about all the different segments. But the executives at these manufacturing companies are saying it's 36% harder to find the talent than it was back in 2018.

Neil:

We're talking about entry-level jobs, Sean. We're not talking about something that you have to have this engineering degree for. You would just have to have a good attitude. You have to show up. You have to have a good work ethic. You have to be able to take instructions. That's all they're looking for. There's a lot of people that have been displaced because of the pandemic in the restaurant business, in the hospitality business. There's just really the sense of, what is going on? Why can't we find these people? It's not new. When you were a wee lad growing up, Sean, and your teacher said, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Did you say a packaging professional?

Riley:

No. We say that a lot. I get that. But I'm also sitting here thinking, as you said that with people being displaced from restaurants and jobs like that, the little difference we've always talked about, especially with the manufacturing type, they're not necessarily low-wage jobs. There's a lot of these. Like you said, while entry level, it's for a pretty good salary that could eventually again, it leads to a career. That's the part that still seems to be hard to get across to the public.

Neil:

Actually, in the study it says despite entry-level jobs in manufacturing, average $15.55 an hour, which is double the minimum federal wage, they can't find people. This is me just thinking about what's going on. First of all, we're not telling our kids, we're telling them you can be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman. We're not telling them that you can be a machine operator. It doesn't have to be an engineer. It can be a very lucrative career. But that's the second part. This Gen Z, this Zoom generation, does not look at this as a lucrative career. They're more into playing the stock market and investing in Bitcoin and being social media influencers. They're not even considering this seriously. So something has to happen.

Neil:

The other thing is, I want to go back. You recently had a conversation with Tom Morrison. He's this expert on market disruption. It was fascinating to me, because he was talking about we're coming out of the pandemic. Our industry's positioned for an economic boom. But how do you grow the company 40% over the next several years when we are only adding about 5% more employee? How do you do that? Obviously, everybody's turning to automation. The big fear has always been automation is going to take our jobs. I'm still saying it's not. But for some people it might. If you'd rather collect your unemployment check than go and get in this entry-level job and start to create new skillsets that are going to be actually cool. Because the digital transformation and the workforce 4.0 movement is meaning that people are going to not just be pulling things off an assembly line and pick and place. They're going to be doing things that are a little bit more interesting.

Neil:

They're going to be learning about robots and artificial intelligence. Deloitte was talking about these new personas that will depict the future versions of manufacturing roles. That's like a Digital Twin Engineer or a Predictive Supply Network Analyst or a Robot Teaming Coordinator. The role of a Robot Teaming Coordinator is to train humans and robots to work together collaboratively. That sounds like a pretty interesting job to me. But you got to get your foot in the door first. So how do we get these people in the door? That's still a big problem that we're trying to solve.

Riley:

From that conversation we had with Tom Morrison, which is available for people who want to listen to previous podcasts, that was one of the things he, I think, highlighted pretty well, was that it's changing those early or entry-level type positions from you're not, like you said, picking things off and putting them in a box. You're more controlling, for lack of a better word, digital workflow. You're controlling these now high-end controls just by having the ability to control a cell phone, because this generation is so used to using computers and cell phones and stuff like that. They can come in and they're not doing... It's manual, but it's not manual lifting things and stuff like that. It's working these screens and stuff that's much more of a... It paints a better picture than a dusty, dirty, old manufacturing facility.

Neil:

Most definitely. It's not just the individuals that we have to turn to and say, "Why aren't you taking these jobs?" We, as an industry, have to come together and figure out how we're going to make this industry more attractive. Then companies themselves have to do it, because even though they understand they need to do this re-skilling, according to this Deloitte survey, only 10% of the respondents are addressing this right now. Then I point a finger at, all right, what company is doing it well? I just did a story on Mars, the food and pet care company. They have just teamed up with Microsoft and Accenture to create this cloud first digital infrastructure across every business segment using AI and digital twins and IOT, all the acronyms that we like to throw around. But they've been doing it in pockets of the organization, but now it's more of a widespread thing.

Neil:

But I think what's more important here to this discussion, is that they're focusing on improving the digital skills of their global workforce. They're taking the time to make sure that they're being trained in this. They're putting the tools in place like Microsoft Teams and other sort of things that can help them do their job. They're making an effort to make sure that their employees are moving forward with this digital transformation just as the company is. That's the example that has to happen across the board, really.

Riley:

You spoke about how, and it's true, everyone got caught in this generation of you're going to get out of high school. You have to go to college. You have to be, like you said, a doctor, lawyer, et cetera, versus trade schools, really being something as an option or training out of high school being more of an option, which was different than previous generations. When you have someone like a Microsoft or a Mars coming to a high school or a community or junior college, painting this picture, it's a lot better than the versions that they were showing people 20 years ago. Again, where you're just going into this manufacturing facility. I think these workers will recognize those names, for lack of a better word again, as people that they want to work alongside.

Neil:

I actually wanted to add onto what you were saying, because there's other programs that are starting to pop up. There's this nonprofit organization called AmSkills right now. They're in the Tampa area. They're doing these hands-on workshops for high school students, where they'll go in, with bringing the teachers, I think they've got a grant from the Department of Education, and they'll replicate these real-world scenarios of time clock tracking, hands-on skills training. Then they also offer another scenario. It's more of an in-depth boot camp. This is for adults and for veterans. They'll provide them with how to read a blueprint, measuring, using hand tools, working on computers, doing writing exercises and working on the soft skills, too. The reason that they're seeing this work is because they're very strategic about where they go.

Neil:

They're making sure that there's a lot of manufacturers in the area first, and then they're rolling in these mobile boot camps, recruiting the people, getting the manufacturers involved. Then at the end of it, they're assessing the projects and the soft skills and they're setting them up with interviews. They're actually being a catalyst and being a bridge from the individual, who's just dabbling in with, "Yeah, I could see myself doing this," and then actually setting up the interview and saying, "Okay, well, maybe there, you'll get your opportunity."

Riley:

I know a little bit about it, but I didn't know as much as you just explained. That's something to me that's fantastic. That's interesting, because you're bringing it to kids that have no idea that this is even an opportunity. If it's in the Tampa area, there could be people in the inner city that aren't aware that there are these type of manufacturing facilities that have these, like we said, career worthy jobs. Touching off of that, how is this affecting... We could spend an hour and even longer just talking about the issues that women have faced in the workplace, and diversity in the workplace, and equity and inclusion, not only in manufacturing, but in this industry, it's coming along, but it's not where it is in some other industries, let's say that. It's definitely something that we're working on. How has COVID affected that? What kind of changes or improvements... Just give me a little bit on what's happening with women in the world.

Neil:

Unfortunately, I don't have good news there either.

Riley:

This is tons of fun.

Neil:

I'm hoping we're going to turn it around. We're going to be the champions of this. First of all, having a diversity, equity and inclusion program is an imperative for manufacturers right now. They know they have to do it. There's things that are going on. Like The National Association of Manufacturers has this pledge for action, which is basically a commitment where they go and they sign the commitment online. They're saying they're going to take some tangible actions to increase equity and parity for underrepresented communities and create pathways and job opportunities. The goal is to reflect the diversity of the overall U.S. workforce by 2030. This is important, because having this diverse network drives business performance. That's proven. There's an analysis of Fortune 500 manufacturing companies that said companies fostering diversity and building inclusive environments are more likely to have stronger financial performance.

Neil:

If you remember, Sean, last March at PACK EXPO East in Philadelphia, we had Kelly Coyne, who's the VP of Global Women's Strategies at Pax Ellevate. She oversees the Pax Ellevate Global Women's Leadership Fund. She talked about the fact that gender diverse leadership teams have better business results. That's the good news. The bad news is that the pandemic has forced more women out of the workforce and that's not good.

Neil:

We were making some good gender parity progress between 2015 and 2020. Women in senior VP positions grew from 23 to 28%. C-suite grew from 17 to 21%. We can't lose that momentum. Unfortunately, we are. There's a new study from McKinsey. It says this COVID crisis could set women back by half a decade, because one in four women are contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Many are citing childcare responsibilities. You think about it. It also said that more women were negatively impacted by COVID. They were more likely to get laid off or furloughed. Add onto that the pressure of maybe homeschooling their kids or financial insecurity or isolation in the pandemic and now we have a problem. It's concerning.

Riley:

It has to be. We're laughing and joking in the being of it, but it's serious. COVID, in particular, has hit women harder and diverse groups harder and different ethnic groups harder. I assume that your answer was not going to be something where this was wonderful situation for women and how they've grown. What can we do? What options do we have to try to get back what we've lost and even surpass that going forward?

Neil:

I think it's the normal engage with the local community and seek to hire more military and tie leadership performance to maybe to diversity, equity and inclusion metrics. These are all the things that organizations or folks like Deloitte are checking off. This is what you need to do. But I don't know the answer. If I did, I'd be very, very successful right now.

Riley:

Yes. You would not be on this podcast.

Neil:

I would not be talking to you right now, Sean.

Riley:

No. You would not be wasting your time.

Neil:

But, you know what? We're doing stuff inside PMMI with the Packaging and Processing Women's Leadership Network which, as you know, we're here to recruit and retain and advance women's careers in the packaging and processing industry. We've been doing it for about four years now. We have got so much great momentum growing. The network is expanding. Just recently, because our Executive Council has ended their four-year term, we've let some of them go if they wanted to move away from our organization. And we've brought new council members on. We've got 10 new executive council members who are there to advise and help guide us and drive the programs based on our pillars, which are networking, communication and alignment. We have a great mix of members now, PMMI members, CPGs and groups we're aligned with, such as the Institute of Packaging Professionals, as well as university. We have an instructor from the School of Packaging at Michigan Sate.

Neil:

So we have a balance of different roles of people at different stages of their careers, like emerging leader versus seasoned leader. I think we have a really great group. We are so grateful to the council members who have helped us over the past few years and for those who've stayed on, including our co-chairs like Sharron Gilbert, who's the CEO of Septimatech and Jan Tharp, who's the CEO of Bumble Bee Seafoods. We're grateful for all of the efforts that have happened to date. We are trying to raise the visibility of what women can accomplish in packaging and processing. That is a reflection of the entire manufacturing industry as a whole. We're doing our little part to make sure that women are well represented in the future.

Riley:

Awesome. I keep thinking back to, and not just because you mentioned it, but those statistics that came out of the last networking event you guys had at PACK EXPO East that you spoke about where the numbers showed a diverse executive branch or executive level with women is better. It's better for your business. It's a fact that the numbers back up. That's something that, hopefully, as we're coming out of this, and we are coming out of this, that you guys can continue to push forward. I know we've talked about it in general terms, but if I'm an OEM, I'm making packaging equipment, how am I helping my customers or how can my customers help me deal with this skill shortage? How are we working together as a packaging and processing community to get through this?

Neil:

That's an excellent question. I reflect back to the Executive Leadership Conference back in April, the CPG panel. We had folks from T. Marzetti and Schwan's Company and Crest Food. Of course, Matt Reynolds, editor of Packaging World, was moderating. He had asked that question too, how can OEMs help you with the needs that you see in terms of the workforce? They originally were just talking about the things that we always talk about. We need more machine flexibility. We've been hearing that for years. But surprisingly, they also asked for help training the next generation workforce on existing machines, because people are retiring. They knew the machine inside and out. New people are coming on board. The OEMs will need to be reengaged to train the next generation. That's what they're asking for.

Neil:

It doesn't have to be onsite. It could be virtual, like an on-demand training, just like we have on-demand streaming of TV. You engage when you want. But the CPGs are really leaning on the OEMs to do this. For new technology, they need help with that, too. Obviously, these machines are getting more sophisticated, more complicated, more integrated. They need help dealing with that. So there's going to be opportunity to be there and have hands-on help. I think, Sean, last time I was on the podcast with you, we talked about OEMs getting creative and coming to the tables with some new services. Maybe it sounds farfetched at the time, but if you can make a business case for it, the CPG will say, "Sure, let's try it." And you just might have a new revenue stream. I'll circle back to the conversation about Tom Morrison talking about taking advantage of the marketplace disruption. Set your sights where you want to be in five to ten years and then figure out how to get there.

Riley:

If we've heard it once, we've heard it a million times about it needs to be a partnership with you and OEMs and CPGs. It needs to be more than just a one-off buying a machine and then only talking to them when you need maintenance or something like that. It needs to evolve as we've all had to evolve through this. Again, citing what he just said about the market disruption, if there is this disruption, we have to get through it together, because if you try to get through it on your own, you're not going to know what everybody else is doing. And if other people are getting through it together, you're going to fall behind. That's why he basically said it is an opportunity to have a competitive advantage.

Neil:

Yep. It is.

Riley:

We've talked longer than we should have, which usually happens when you and I start talking about this, which is great. To wrap up, is there anything else that you want to get out there that you can share?

Neil:

Honestly, the takeaway for me as I'm looking at this research from Deloitte and from McKinsey and just scanning the manufacturing landscape and talking to people, I think that we're so focused on the digital transformation and we're not looking closely enough at how that impacts the workforce. We're not going to replace people with automation. People are going to be working side-by-side with robots. There's going to be some great new job opportunities out there. But organizations have to be more flexible.

Neil:

Just like CPGs are asking OEMs to be more flexible with machines, organizations have to be more flexible. They have to be more empathetic to the fact that the pandemic really did a number on a lot of people. They have to be flexible with their work hours and making sure they have maybe a hybrid workload for these moms that are worried about what are they going to do. They can't get back to work, because maybe they have childcare issues. There's a lot that has to be addressed moving forward. And I think we can do it.

Riley:

The interesting thing, again, you say that is, we are, for the most part, at least in the packaging end and with a lot of the food and the beverage and things like that and especially food processing, did pretty well from a dollars and cents point of view throughout this pandemic, because some businesses, unfortunately yes, were lost. But for the most part as a whole, these are all things that people needed every day. As an industry, it thrived while the workers may have been suffering. That is, like you said, there needs to be some empathy involved to bring that around where you guys did pretty good during this, so now you might want to take that into consideration when you're working things out with the workforce that has helped you profit from this.

Neil:

Absolutely.

Riley:

Is there anywhere where I could read anything about these type of topics?

Neil:

Yes. On OEMmagazine.org.

Riley:

Fantastic. Thank you very much for giving us your time, Steph. It's always a pleasure.

Neil:

Thanks, Sean.