How Manufacturers Can Develop Their Workforce When There's Little In The Till

It's a challenging time for manufacturers. Fluctuating sales and changing customer demands require companies to become more flexible than ever.

It's a challenging time for manufacturers. Fluctuating sales and changing customer demands require companies to become more flexible than ever. Many companies believe that their workforce is not well prepared to lead them in this direction. At the same time, they've have had to trim their training and education budgets.

First, a reality check. How savvy is our workforce on manufacturing philosophies such as lean manufacturing, the latest innovations in product and process design, and new technologies and methods for small manufacturers? In recent studies conducted by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), manufacturing industry executives cited workforce training and development as the most critical issues that they face. They acknowledged that their employees lacked skills and knowledge in new processes, management, communication and leadership fundamentals.

The impact that this has on their businesses is measurable and, frankly, depressing. One in five manufacturing companies has delayed or discontinued new product development and capital purchases due to manufacturing competency gaps. Think about it: 20 percent of manufacturers haven't grown as quickly as they could have specifically because of gaps in their employees' skills.

So, how do we move our manufacturing workforce ahead of the curve?

Decades ago, workforce training was simple and straightforward. If your team needed to learn a new technology, members would pack their bags and fly off to a general seminar on that topic or bring in on-the-job or vendor training.

Although there are still many times when it makes sense to travel en masse for broad-based training, today's workforce development options must be a lot more creative, flexible and affordable.

The solution can lie in the information and customized development options offered by professional organizations and societies long known for their ability to provide the highest-level, leading-edge information from their industries' leaders.

SME, for instance, has evolved lean manufacturing, information technology, supply-chain management and specific competencies into the traditional manufacturing educational programs and materials it provides to half a million engineers and executives around the world. It uses its well-established activities and resources such as seminars, conferences and trade shows; technical reference material and publications; career guidance and coaching; and other programs to help its members understand everything from general principles to specific applications in all the latest technologies and philosophies.

One advantage of tapping into trade organizations for workforce development needs is that the information comes from objective experts from a variety of industries. Consider one of today's hottest topics: lean manufacturing. For a manufacturer seeking to achieve efficiency while operating under the conventional business definition of "lean" (think budget dollars), the plethora of "lean" consultants, reference materials and training institutions can be overwhelming and unaffordable, and they may not all come from qualified, objective sources.

When you get down to it, your workforce is only as strong as your least skilled employee. Manufacturers need a workforce of highly skilled, technically savvy manufacturing professionals, now more than ever. Organizations such as SME can help.