Headline numbers from last week’s Labor Department employment report showed a sizeable shrinkage of manufacturing jobs. The loss, however, was exaggerated by the impact of the six-week strike at General Motors. While manufacturing output is down a bit from last year, employment in the sector is up by 49,000 in the past 12 months.
Like industrial operators, Joanie Courtney knows that tremendous numbers of manufacturing jobs are going begging, and companies struggle with worker shortages. Courtney, chief workforce analyst at EmployBridge, the nation’s largest industrial staffing company, said that with unemployment at a 50-year low, “it continues to be extremely difficult for industrial companies to find the workers they need.”
“And retaining workers is just as much of a challenge as finding them,” she noted.
The retention challenge, she says, is driven in part by the desire for flexibility on the part of Millennials and many would-be workers of all ages.
“The key is going to be advances in production and workforce scheduling,” she said. “Companies will have to become very creative in those areas in order to retain not just Millennials, but also the skilled retirees who want to work part-time and the women who would be willing to join the workforce if they had some flexibility to care for children.”
To help solve the worker problem, will industrial companies take a leaf from the service economy and turn to gig workers, especially those with the specific skills and technical knowledge that are in short supply?
“I don’t see much use of gig workers yet, but that may be coming,” Courtney said. “It all goes back to the scheduling issue and the complexity of matching production schedules with having the right people at the right time. It’s going to take advances in scheduling technology as well as changes in attitudes for that to happen.”
She sees companies that currently offer temporary industrial staffing, like her own, probably acting as intermediaries in some way if gig employment grows. The intermediary function helps industrial companies, she said, because it eliminates “the chaos” of finding, screening, onboarding and training non-employee workers, as well as “making sure the workers show up on time.”
Perhaps equally as important as flexibility for the retention of workers is training, says Courtney, because the nature of industrial work and the skills needed to do it are changing so quickly.
“Whoever does it — workers themselves; companies individually or perhaps in partnership with unions, government agencies or non-profits; or staffing companies like ours, which created our own academy — training and learning new skills are more important than ever,” she said.