Nine months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production at plants and factories across the country, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) painted a rosy picture for the industry — and hinted at a lingering problem.

Manufacturing output was setting records, the trade organization reported as part of its 2019 Second Quarter Outlook Survey. But there was a hitch — a labor shortage. Around the time of the report, in July 2019, there were 522,000 manufacturing job openings, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Fast forward two years and through a global health crisis, and staffing levels are even worse. Job openings in manufacturing totaled 889,000 in July 2021, according to the BLS. A May 2021 study from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute said that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs could be unfilled by 2030.

Courtney Berg
, founder and owner of HR consulting firm CourtSide Consulting, was recently talking with a client in manufacturing who stated the challenge simply. “He said, ‘We can deal with anything else, but recruitment and retention of solid employees [is] just difficult,’” Berg relayed. “They’re not finding the right talent,” she added.

The top Human Resources challenges in manufacturing are many — from training supervisors to addressing injuries. And they all orbit around the biggest hurdle: staffing. When HR departments and company leaders address these issues holistically, they’re able to retain more current employees and curb attrition. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the top HR challenges in manufacturing — and share expert tips for how to solve them.

Recruitment 

Classified ads and word-of-mouth might have been all manufacturers needed to recruit skilled workers back when Baby Boomers were looking for jobs. But now Baby Boomers are retiring, and their exodus, according to the aforementioned Deloitte report, is among the top reasons why positions are going unfilled.

Today, manufacturers need to get creative if they want to lure top talent and younger generations, including Millennials, who are now reaching 40, and members of Gen Z, who are just entering the working world. Here’s how HR teams can do that.

1. Build relationships.

Reach out to local high schools, community colleges, and colleges, said Berg. But don’t just let them know about your openings; build a relationship with their career placement officers, she recommended.

“They are the ones that really work with the people...and can identify, ‘Wow, this person is really a great fit for that company [and] I know who that company is because I have a connection with that HR department,’” she said. 

2. Bring value.

Those relationships can grow when you bring value to the schools. Look for opportunities for representatives from your company to teach a class or be a guest lecturer, Berg said. Let students tour your facility.

“Not only [do they] see the cool machines and [the rest of the plant], but they’re also getting to feel the culture of that organization,” said Berg. “If they feel at home there, they are going to come back and want to work there.” 

3. Get out in the community.

Factories and plants are often hidden in nameless industrial parks; potential employees might not even know they exist. Start promoting yourself, advised Jessica Glazer, Strategic Recruitment Director for MindHR, Montreal-based recruiting and career coaching agency. Placing targeted ads in local media, building your social media presence, and even sponsoring park benches that you emblazon with your organization’s name can all help. “The more people see a company name, the more they are curious,” she said. 

4. Join together.

Partner with HR teams at other local manufacturers to share information about job candidates, suggested Glazer. If one candidate isn’t a perfect fit for you, they could be the right person for another local company and vice versa. “Not everybody is going to be for you anyway,” Glazer pointed out. 

Retraining

More and more these days, manufacturers are deploying new technologies to make plant operations more efficient. According to the 2021 Deloitte Global Resilience Study, 57% of respondents in the manufacturing industry said they use technology to redesign job tasks, like automating tasks that were previously done manually. But, the 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report found that while most manufacturers agree that, particularly given the current state of technological advancements, retraining is critical, only 42% were at all prepared to do that.

Previously, companies might have fired existing workers and hired new ones with the right skillset, said Berg. Employers don’t have that luxury now. As they consider the skills required for the future, they must take a closer look at their current workforce.

Companies should match their current workers with their organizational needs, Berg continued. Then, they need to determine what workers remain and how they can be retrained to support the work going forward. Manufacturers are landing on creative ways to retrain their workers, according to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, including offering classes and skills certifications and partnering with local community colleges. 

Preparing and Training Supervisors  

Poor management can lead to unhappy workers, burnout, and turnover, and not everybody is equipped with the skills required to effectively manage workers. Carissa Gudenkauf knows this firsthand. When she worked as a chemical plant superintendent, she often failed to take her workers’ perspectives into consideration without realizing it.

When addressing workers, Gudenkauf didn’t take the time to check in with them about what they were working on or how their weekend was; she simply launched into the tasks at hand. That quick shift from one task to the next made sense to her with her task-oriented way of thinking as an engineer, but it stressed out her workers. They had spent time preparing for one job, and now she had pulled them onto another.

“We hired them because they are consistent and detail-oriented, and they think things through,” said Gudenkauf, now a talent optimizer consultant and coach with talent strategy firm MVP-Results. “Me pulling them to another job is a stressor.” 

Acknowledging that they had spent time setting up for another job would have been a better way to approach them, Gudenkauf said in retrospect. Getting to know them as people — learning about their families and hobbies — helps, too. “It’s not all about executing and getting things done,” she said. “There’s a people side to it.”

Providing task-oriented leaders with a few open-ended questions designed to get to know employees can spark some dialogue and make the manager-employee connection more collegial. Questions might include “How was your weekend?” or “How is your grandchild’s baseball team doing?” or “What do you need help with?” Conversational questions like these can help supervisors build strong relationships with their direct reports over time, Gudenkauf noted. If you’re looking for additional tips on this front, she recommended reading this article from talent optimization platform The Predictive Index about building empathetic leaders.

Leadership
and mentorship programs can also ensure that supervisors have the skills necessary to lead effectively. “Just promoting someone into the role and saying, ‘Good luck’ [is] not the way we should be doing it,” said Matthew Burr, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, founder of Burr Consulting, an HR consulting firm. 

Injuries and Leave

Among industries, manufacturing logs some of the highest injury rates, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). And those injuries can trigger federal and state laws that protect workers’ rights as they recover.

Workers’ compensation
rules, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all intersect here, said Matthew D. Besser, an employment discrimination attorney at Cleveland-based law firm Bolek Besser Glesius. But it gets complicated, and employers make mistakes.

Take a worker with a back injury. FMLA allows them to take off up to 12 weeks to recover, and an employer might fire them if they don’t return once those 12 weeks are up. But, if the worker has a note from their doctor that says they need a full 20 weeks to get well, for example, the ADA will likely require the employer to grant them more time, Besser said. The employer could face legal implications for not providing them that extra recuperation time.

Employers also need to be thoughtful when an injury doesn’t allow a worker to return to their previous job. If lifting heavy items was a key part of their earlier role, but an injury prevents a worker from completing those tasks, the employer may need to look for other positions for the employee within the company.

To avoid noncompliance with these federal laws, Besser advised that beyond understanding the law, the best practice is to be reflective, not reactionary. “If your gut instinct is, ‘We’re not going to do that,’ you might be exposing yourself under the ADA,” he cautioned. It’s critical that employers walk through the required processes to determine when they can legally require someone to return to work after an injury or what on-the-job accommodations, such as a new position with different responsibilities, they must provide to them, he said.

“You really have to go through the interactive process,” said Besser. “Maybe you’ll determine that there is no accommodation. But maybe you’ll determine that there is, and you can keep on a good employee and avoid a lawsuit.”

Employee Engagement

Companies with high employee engagement have less turnover and higher productivity, profitability, and customer loyalty, according to Gallup research. Yet, only 25% of manufacturing employees are engaged at work, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. To boost employee engagement, the manufacturing sector needs to focus on cultivating culture.

“If you’re not taking care of your culture, you’re probably experiencing some high turnover, [and] you’re certainly experiencing some absenteeism,” said Berg. “Maybe more issues that HR needs to get involved in because of...little red flags popping up.”

On top of attrition and absenteeism, those warning signs might also include more bickering among employees, workers who regularly arrive late and leave early, and other day-to-day personnel issues that require the HR department’s attention, she said. These kinds of issues could be counteracted with a strong culture that, for example, values safety, respect, and open communication

Creating a workplace culture takes effort and requires a whole-company approach, Berg noted. It starts with defining the company’s mission, vision, and values. Representatives from each team, for instance, should sit on a culture committee. And transparency must be paramount. “You’ve got to get everybody’s buy-in to do it,” she said. 



As HR teams work to keep factory floors filled with employees and handle other Human Resources challenges, they need to take a big-picture approach, thinking about the needs of the labor market and how to support current employees, advised Burr. And it boils down to treating people fairly, removing workplace politics, and ensuring all workers feel seen and heard with the right leadership and culture in place, he said.

“It’s treating people the way you want to be treated,” said Burr. “It’s that simple.”