When robots aren’t enough — manufacturing talent for 2021 and beyond

Feb. 12, 2021
Like other industries, manufacturing is rapidly introducing new technologies, doubling down on innovation and re-thinking how work gets done. And, as has always been the case, manufacturing ultimately depends on people to get things done.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Like the rest of the world, manufacturing is facing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Like other industries, manufacturing is rapidly introducing new technologies, doubling down on innovation and re-thinking how work gets done. And, as has always been the case, manufacturing ultimately depends on people to get things done. However, how these people are managed, who these people should be and what these people expect from their employers is changing.

The manufacturing industry has a talent problem, and this problem is becoming more intense as the aging workforce moves into retirement. The industry is increasingly moving from mechanical to "mechatronics" (mechanical, electronic and IT skills). The old work is becoming automated and the new work requires new skills and new ways of operating. Collaborative robots are becoming less expensive, smarter and more ubiquitous, creating a new breed of coworker and new styles of teamwork. Manufacturing is becoming increasingly agile as plant floors become multi-directional and flexible. Authoritarian leadership is fading as networks of teams and the lean leadership of "mangineers" (managers who are also engineers) take power.

Although engineers, six sigma experts and IT wizards will play a significant role in solving the challenges facing manufacturing in 2021, talent professionals are also needed. The war for talent is especially intense in manufacturing, an industry with an image problem and rapidly changing talent needs. Millennial workers may believe manufacturing careers are not fulfilling and that the industry is on the decline. Manufacturers are also grappling with major staff resourcing issues as employment struggles to rebound to pre-COVID-19 levels. The pandemic has put an even greater strain on frontline workers and this, coupled with the declining U.S. birth rate  — 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births predicted next year — forces manufacturers to rethink long-term hiring strategies to ensure they not only fill immediate gaps, but also are prepared to maintain a strong, skilled workforce over the coming decades. On top of all of this, manufacturing is increasingly competing with sexier industries for the same talent pools. As the data age booms and every company fights for the same pool of millennials, manufacturers need to have clarity of purpose, a compelling employment brand and a talent strategy that aligns with the vision of the factory of the future.

Talent partners can help manufacturers address issues such as changing job requirements and skillsets needed, continuous learning, talent shortfalls, HR metrics and accountability, as well as the growing importance of soft skills and teamwork. To accelerate the alignment of the talent strategy with the needs of the business, consider these following 5 keys to success in talent management.

Double down on redeployment

Just as reduce, re-use, recycle is good advice for environmental stewardship, manufacturing organizations need to continue to seek ways to conserve talent. Human capital is precious and such capital can be re-purposed when organizations have sufficient insight into what their employees can do, will do and want to do. Behavioral preferences can be measured much like skills, and such data can be stored, crunched, analyzed and leveraged to ensure that employees are in the right part of the organization at the right time doing things the right way. Behavioral analytics and insights can reduce employee churn, get employees in the right roles and maximize employee productivity by identifying where employees can thrive and how to best grow them into new positions before wasting resources seeking external candidates.

Promote self-learning and development

The world is too complex and changing too rapidly for people to maintain expertise in all areas. Organizations must facilitate a knowledge-sharing culture in order to promote just-in-time learning and reduce the downtime and drain of in-depth training. Empowered, accountable employees must have access to knowledge resources and need to be encouraged to mentor, support and help one another grow as the organization continues to change. Leaders can promote a culture focused on growth and quality, without being overly prescriptive, controlling or authoritarian. Leaders can attract, select and work to retain team-oriented individuals, and they can empower those individuals by providing clear goals and holding them accountable. Finally, leaders can provide their people with a platform for knowledge transfer and continuous learning.

Utilize worker profiles

Just as factory floors, line processes and supply chains are continuously reimagined and carefully mapped out, talent needs must be continuously reimagined and mapped out. Human Resources cannot be siloed from the evolution of the company. Workforce planning must incorporate the changing nature of job requirements. Organizations should identify key jobs and fundamental talent traits that can positively or negatively impact the success of the strategy. These jobs and traits must be tracked, and accountability created, to ensure that the evolving workforce aligns with the evolving needs of the business in a predictable, measurable way. All human capital being introduced into the organization should be vetted against the values and goals of the organization to reduce "contamination" of poor teamwork, misaligned talent or diminished effort. This means that contract workers, seasonal workers, temporary workers and especially full-time job candidates must all be evaluated against a quantifiable talent standard to promote alignment of the talent strategy with the business strategy.

Leverage algorithms

The velocity, variety, volume and veracity of data continues to accelerate and create space for big data gurus to guide manufacturing into increased efficiency, operational excellence and transformative profit opportunities. Such data exists for people just as it does for industrial processes. Having a data strategy for talent analytics will empower talent professionals to deliver transformation alongside the industrial engineers. Having a deeper understanding of the human capital in the business and how it operates can allow for insights and triggers that accelerate industrial transformation and avoid talent meltdowns, such as productivity drops, compliance violations, accidents and shutdowns. Talent professionals can use algorithms to improve people management while also conforming to local laws and realizing the capabilities and pitfalls of human-centered analytics. Although human measurement is not the same as engineering measurement, it is possible and it is predictive, when done right.

Emphasize soft skills

As specific skill needs change, a growth mindset and soft skills such as teamwork and problem solving become increasingly important. Cultivating a workforce that has the fungible soft skills and capabilities that can be shaped and molded over time to align with the shifting needs of the organization pays dividends in terms of knowledge retention and cultural reinforcement. An agile workforce is one that can adapt, and adaptability can be cultivated and measured. Organizations that want to promote innovation and flexibility must take steps to ensure that such behaviors are promoted throughout the talent lifecycle from recruiting to hiring to onboarding to promoting. Focusing less on specific hard skills and more on the core soft skills that drive the culture will promote culture change and strategy execution.

Robots, automation and innovative technologies are obviously essential to the future factory, but so are people. Manufacturers who seek to unlock the full potential of emerging technologies must consider the talent implications of their business strategy. Getting the right talent in the right roles taking the right action at the right time is imperative, and is possible with the right talent leaders, talent partners and talent technologies. Our society depends on manufacturing and manufacturing continues to depend on people. Everybody wins when manufacturers figure out how to win the war for talent and unlock the full potential of their workforce.

Dr. Joel Philo has a passion for helping organizations realize the value of people. Using his PhD in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Texas A&M University and his nearly 20 years of experience as an internal HR professional and external HR consultant, Dr. Philo guides companies to maximize their human potential. He started his career with the U.S. Department of Labor, and has worked for a variety of companies including The Home Depot, PepsiCo and JCPenney in both HR and marketing roles. For the past seven years, he has consulted as a Principal Behavioral Scientist at Infor Talent Science and is dedicated to helping organizations strategically leverage data and cloud software to drive business success through HR excellence.