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There is an important distinction to be made between challenges that are important versus challenges that are merely urgent.
Urgency is a mode that manufacturers routinely face. In many shops and plants, shrinking lead times have turned every order into a rush job. Meanwhile, any tool failure, flagged inspection report or unplanned maintenance task constitutes an emergency, because it can leave valuable capacity sitting idle until the problem is fixed. Much of the work of manufacturing consists of organized responses to urgent developments.
The danger in this lies in the many challenges that are important, but do not scream with urgency. For example, how should the plant improve its processes? What new markets should the shop pursue? In what ways should the facility expand? All such questions will remain ignored unless someone chooses to face them. If you get too caught up in the urgent, then the important will be neglected.
Today, one major challenge that many manufacturers face is both urgent and important at the same time. This is the challenge of finding skilled manufacturing personnel. In fact, this challenge is actually two challenges—the urgent one and the important one. To see this, divide the struggle into its short-term and long-term components.
Short term, many manufacturing facilities have more work than they can gracefully handle with their existing staff, and more opportunities than they can reasonably pursue. Help-wanted ads and other traditional approaches to finding talent generate high volumes of response with few or zero candidates who are ready and qualified to be hired.
Long term, the trends suggest that this situation will get worse. Retirees will leave manufacturing in greater numbers than young people will enter it—unless something is done.
Right now, we are facing the short-term problem. There might be no solution. An influx of new talent will not appear from nowhere. Therefore, manufacturers will muscle through, stretch existing employees, and find imaginative ways to overcome part of the gaps they perceive in their existing staffing.
However, the long-term problem—the important problem—is eminently solvable. The solution begins today. Looking past today’s urgent challenge, a manufacturer can decide what staffing it wants to have in five years and plan for what it must do to train enough people to reach that goal.
Alphatec Spine is doing this. The training program
this manufacturer has put in place will not begin generating new, trained, skilled personnel for three years. But after that time, the training pipeline will keep on annually producing qualified prospects who are ready for Alphatec to hire.
A recent email from a reader citing an old article reminded me I have been writing about the challenge of finding skilled employees for at least 10 years. Manufacturers today have the power to decide whether this challenge will still be an urgent one after 10 more years have passed.
People and Systems
The 2016 election and its outcome offer two lessons manufacturers will recognize.