Strategies for addressing the manufacturing skills shortage

The skills shortage in America may put $1 trillion in manufacturing GDP at risk over the next decade. Forty percent of Canadian manufacturers face labor shortages, with that gap expected to become 60% within five years, and most industrial employers search for more than 6 months before filling vacancies. Add to this the surge of people emboldened to quit their jobs in the post-COVID economic boom, and manufacturers are at acute risk of work-stoppage due to the shortage of skilled workers. In her June 2021 webinar, asset management advisor Suzane Greeman of Greeman Asset Management Solutions examined the skills shortage’s roots and proposed strategies for future-proofing organizations to withstand the talent drought.

How did we get here?

Automation and now Industry 4.0 have transformed manufacturing processes and machinery. Maintaining this complex equipment requires a high-quality workforce and these skill sets are not immediately transferrable. New hires often require over six months of onboarding to fully contribute.

Unfortunately, market perception has not kept pace with the reality of what these jobs offer.

Many people still regard manufacturing work as low-skilled and dirty and most are unaware of what the career opportunities in manufacturing look like. Despite recent awareness-building around the value of trades and engineering work, not enough students are entering related fields, and those that do often experience a gap between their studies and job site requirements. Internships and onsite education programs are expensive and were in many cases abandoned during the Great Recession or earlier. Meanwhile, baby boomers continue to retire, taking their skills with them.

Impact of the talent crunch infographic

“We also have companies that are just not well run,” says Greeman. “Work is not well-defined, leaders do not actively engage with employees and the work environment is often hostile.” As a result, up to 50% of works have checked out mentally and emotionally and say they are ready to leave their job for an even slightly better offer.

“When the environment gets toxic, there is never just one incompetent manager,” says Greeman, “there are at least four: the individual manager, the manager’s boss, the HR manager, and the CEO. They are all complicit.”

Talent flight from individual managers infographic

Investing in skills

During the webinar, Greeman surveyed the audience to find out how many of the teams attending were actively mitigating the risk of acute skills shortage and only 18% said they were addressing it. Mitigation options recommended by Greeman include:

  • Creating a talent pipeline within the organization, from a framework of skill sets to training programs and internal incentives for continuing education.
  • Mentorship and coaching for employees, including offering retired persons the opportunity to train and coach new hires.
  • Succession planning.
  • Participating at both the college and secondary education level as guest lecturers, curriculum contributors, and scholarship funders.
  • Encouraging cross-fertilization between industries and considering candidates from other industries.
  • Prioritizing internally on core services and establishing strategic partners for non-core services.
  • Investing in good information systems and processes to preserve business know-how and manage risks when employees leave.
  • Creating more paths for people to be successful without becoming managers; recognize expertise and financially promote skilled staff.
  • Training leaders at all levels of the organization in both management and leadership skills.
  • Sharing and rewarding sustainable behaviors instead of emergency fixes.
  • Simplifying hiring practices and updating compensation methods to include more vacation, higher salary, and more role diversity.

Individual leaders can often make the biggest difference, says Greeman. “You can personally demonstrate the positive values that encourage skilled people to stay. Speak with people regularly, including about things that are not work-related. The best thing you can give as a leader is your time.”

And while most facilities are hard-pressed to find extra time, the extraordinary level of risk posed by workforce shortages makes retention activities a top priority. Greeman suggests that all managers ask themselves: ‘When I show up at work as a leader, am I someone that I would want to work for?”

To communicate the gravity of the skills shortage to upper management, Greeman advises coming at it from the perspective of risk—We risk $X if we don’t do Y—and emphasizing that employee retention must be long-term.

Just like a good maintenance program bakes in long-term asset management, skills and retention programs must work in advance of forecasted needs. For more advice on how to future-proof your workforce, watch the full webinar at

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