Tips for Closing Your Manufacturing Skills Gap

Tips for Closing Your Manufacturing Skills Gap
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American manufacturers have been facing, talking about, and trying to fight against a skills gap for a long time. And not only is that skills-gap problem not yet solved, it’s especially acute today. 

There are a number of reasons for the continuation of the skills gap problem in manufacturing. Certainly, the COVID pandemic of 2022-present is one of those, as is the probably-related Great Resignation of 2021/2022. But that’s not the only cause, and in this article we’ll point to a few causes for you. 

More importantly, we’ll also provide some tips for reducing or closing the skills gap at your workplace, including but not limited to using online manufacturing training elearning courses and a learning management system (LMS).

Some Reasons for the Skills Gap in Manufacturing 

In discussing the skills gap in manufacturing, people very often used to point to the retiring of the Baby Boomer generation. And they still do, and this is a contributing factor, although if we consider Baby Boomers to be people born between 1946 and 1964, the oldest Baby Boomers are now 76 years old (see many of them are now and have been for some time) and the youngest Baby Boomers are now 58 years old (so 2-9 years 9 years away from common retirement ages of 62-67). So one would expect that while this is still an issue, it’s a smaller issue than it might have been some years back.

Another common explanation for why American manufacturers have trouble staffing jobs with fully-skilled employees is that the necessary job skills have changed as manufacturers have integrated more and more technology into their work and production processes. With the increasing prevalence of computers, robots, and sensors in the workplace, the movement toward things like The Industrial Internet of Things, Advanced Manufacturing, and Industry 4.0, and the need for new skills such as data analytics, this makes sense.

And most recently, many people focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced society and the workforce. Employers were sometimes forced to replace an absent worker, perhaps one who was quarantining or had actually become infected and was sick, with other workers who didn’t necessarily have the right jobs. Additionally, many workers began to quit their jobs in the hopes of getting other employment that appealed to them more in the same industry or in different industries. And there’s no doubt this exacerbated the skills gap problem. 

But beyond these three factors—the aging of the workforce and the retiring of Baby Boomers, the increasingly technical nature of manufacturing work, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were other contributing factors as well. We’ll touch on quite a few below and give some ideas for beginning to solve the problems also.  

Change the Negative Perception of Manufacturing Jobs 

Somewhere along the way, jobs in industrial and manufacturing settings just became less fashionable. That’s probably due, at least in part, to a widespread perception that these jobs are dirty, repetitive, not interesting, and with no path for career growth. The glamor moved to jobs in other fields, such as software engineering for the Internet. 

Whether that stereotype about manufacturing training was ever true, it’s certainly not true or is less-true now. Many manufacturing workplaces are super-clean places where workers work alongside robots, computers, sensors, artificial intelligence, 3-D printers, and even more high-tech. And these jobs are challenging, cognitively interesting, and rewarding. And in many manufacturing organizations, there is a clear opportunity for career growth (although we’ll point out some areas for improvement later in this article). 

What can your organization do to change this negative perception? Begin spreading the good word about what today’s manufacturing is like. Use your organization’s social media channels to put those stereotypes to rest. Spread the news at local job fairs and in the community at large. Become an evangelist for your company and for manufacturing and let people know about the great jobs and careers manufacturing offers. 

Increase Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Your Organization & Highlight Your Efforts

The American workforce is wildly diverse. And the highly talented, skilled workers your organization wants to hire and retain are diverse too. 

And that’s just one reason why your organization should be focusing on your commitment to DE&I issues and on becoming an increasingly diverse and inclusive workplace. Because workers value diversity and inclusion at work, and if those aren’t characteristics of your organization, they’ll pass up your job listing and look at a different employer instead. Or they’ll leave your organization for a different organization. 

Either way, it will benefit your organization to be committed to DE&I issues, to make substantive, ongoing improvements on DE&I issues, to communicate those to employees and potential employees, and to be ready to not just talk about them but to demonstrate them as well. And that’s true even before we look at the positive effects DE&I efforts have on workplace productivity, profitability, and innovation. 

For more, see our recent (and now recorded) Introduction to Organization DE&I webinar or our online DE&I training courses

To Close the Skills Gap, Build a Skills Map 

As the American philosopher and part-time baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.” This is funny, but it’s also relevant when it comes to making plans to close your skills gap at work. 

Closing your skills gap sounds like a good, even great, idea. Surely every manufacturer would agree they want to do that. 

But has your organization ever really sat down and analyzed the skills your workers need today to succeed at your workplace? Has this information been communicated to HR and people in charge of hiring job candidates, making sure their job descriptions are accurate? Do department or frontline managers know which skills are currently required for the different job roles that report up to them? 

And what about not just the skills your organization’s workers need today but the skills they’ll need in the future as well? What about 3-5 years down the road? What is your organization doing to proactively identify these “future skills” and begin preparing now to help workers acquire them when they’re necessary?

This is a critical step in closing your skills gap. Creating a skills map helps you know where you’re going and helps you close your skills gap.  

Develop a Relationship with a Local Community College

The chances are there’s a local community college or technical school in your area, and that community college may have a program in which they’re helping people develop exactly the skills your organization needs. 

Maybe it’s a 1:1 match, and they’re offering programs specifically intended to help people move into entry-level roles in manufacturing, be it production, maintenance, or other fields. 

Or maybe they’ve got some programs that aren’t specifically intended to place employees in your lap but are still highly relevant. For example, maybe they’re got a #DataAnalytics or #InstructionalDesign program. 

Or maybe you’ll have to connect a few more dots and do a little more work and reach out to them to see if they’ll develop a program that will help prepare workers to work for your company. Or maybe you’ll even need to get your feet wet and help them develop the curriculum.

Regardless, this investment will help the school, the students, and your organization. Give it some thought. 

Consider Creating an “Academy”

This idea is a little more out-of-the box but some organizations are now creating training and providing it “externally” so that members of the public can complete that training and develop the skills necessary for an entry-level career at a company like the one that made the training available. This training may be free or it may require people to pay in advance. 

This is commonly known as creating an academy and one well-known example is the Google Academy, which provides certificates to people in IT Support, Data Analytics, Project Management, UX Design, and Android Development. Creating this academy was good PR for Google and helped individuals looking for skills for good-paying, entry-level jobs, but it also provided Google with a steady stream of properly skilled, job-ready job applicants ready to fill their positions and succeed on day one of the job.

Build a Robust, Well-Designed Learning & Development Program

You won’t be able to close a skills gap problem unless you have a robust, well-designed training program and other effective, well-thought-out learning and development programs at your workplace. 

You’ll need to begin with that skills map we mentioned earlier and develop a learning and development program that will help workers at your plant(s) develop all of those necessary skills over time (and be ready to learn skills that will be necessary in the future as well.

This will begin with workplace performance analysis, training needs analysis and skills mapping; will include an emphasis on instructional-design methodologies and evidence-based training practices; will include instructor-led training, virtual instructor-led training, online training, and other forms of learning activities; will make plans for new employee onboarding, continued upskilling, and reskilling (read here for more on upskilling and reskilling at work in light of COVID); will pair workers with mentors and will facilitate social learning at work; will include the creation of performance support; will make use of microlearning and other learning activities for spaced learning; and more. 

Know the Difference between “Training” Problems and “Process” Problems

Not every workplace problem can be solved by training, so keep this in mind before you try to create training for everything. 

Workplace problems that training can solve or help solve include:

  • Issues where employees lack necessary knowledge
  • Issues where employees lack necessary job skills
  • Issues where employees lack specific attitudes, such as the importance of a customer-first mind frame 

Use training to help solve the kind of problems listed above, and always analyze workplace problems first to see if it’s really a process problem (this is the most common issue) or a different issue that training can’t fix. This is where things from the lean-manufacturing tool bag, such as value-stream mapping, 5S, and Kanban can help out. 

To learn more about this, check out our What is HPI? article, our What is HPI? recorded webinar, and our How Lean Manufacturing is Part of the HPI Toolkit article.

Also, even if it is an issue related to lack of knowledge or a skill that’s not yet fully automated, remember there are times when simply providing the worker with access to a job aid at the moment and place of need on the job may be a more effective solution than designing and delivering training (microlearning can be an especially useful way to deliver performance support and additional training). 

Don’t Stop at Knowledge; Train for Skills

Workers need knowledge, and need to apply that knowledge, to work successfully. So it’s OK to include necessary knowledge in your training (this article on why people remember and forget training may be helpful). 

But knowledge acquisition is rarely or perhaps never the end-point for job training. What we want to do is help employees develop skills, which may require the employees to apply that information, and of course to apply those new skills on the job to help the organization reach its own goals, such as production, safety, quality, and profitability). 

There’s a lot to know about how to effectively help employees develop the job skills they’ll need, but ultimately a lot of this comes down to (1) demonstrations of the skills, (2) providing the workers a chance to practice those skills, and (3) providing helpful, supportive feedback to the worker on their job task performances. This should occur during initial training sessions, during later training sessions spread out over time, and on the job as well.

Facilitate Transfer of Knowledge & Skills from Experienced Employees to Newer Employees 

Directly helping workers as they acquire new knowledge and develop new skills is an important part of the L&D function. By this, we mean that the L&D professional designing, developing, or delivering training already has the knowledge or knows how to perform the skill and is directly teaching the employee.

However, it can be easy to focus too much on this type of direct instruction, where the L&D professional is directly interacting with the worker on new knowledge and skills. After all, nobody in L&D knows and can do everything, and our organizations are full of experts on any number of topics. 

There are many ways people in L&D can help facilitate learning that occurs amongst employees at an organization (this article on learning organizations and this interview with L&D professional Michelle Ockers on learning organizations provide more insight on this). But surely one of the best ways is to put new workers together with experienced workers so those experienced workers can transfer knowledge and skills down to those newer workers (this will help with that “brain drain” issue caused by retiring Baby Boomers that we mentioned earlier). 

To do this, make sure your pairing newly hired workers up with a workplace buddy and a job mentor during onboarding; develop robust, comprehensive, and standardized on-the-job training (aka “job shadowing”) programs; develop other learning opportunities, such as weekly lunch and learns; and use your learning management system to enable online forums, discussion boards, and other forms of workplace social learning. 

But as much as anything, this begins with recognizing that your employee base is full of experts directly related to the work your company does every day. 

Onboarding

One of the most critical elements in an organization’s training program is proper onboarding. This includes onboarding of newly hired employees who are entirely new to the organization as well as onboarding of employees who are moving into new job roles, especially if they’re moving into a new department, into a job role that’s very different than their previous job role, or if it’s been a long time since they last went through onboarding (maybe they’ve forgotten the organization’s missions and values or maybe things have changed since they were onboarded). 

We’ve got a more thorough discussion of onboarding in this recorded, on-demand Onboarding webinar, in this written summary of the Onboarding webinar, and in this article on the importance of onboarding in manufacturing, but here are a few tips to keep in mind: 

  • Consider breaking onboarding down into several parts—pre-onboarding from home before day 1; orientation, when HR paperwork is done; general employee onboarding; and job-specific employee onboarding
  • Spread onboarding out over three, six, nine, or (ideally) twelve months 
  • Make job requirements and performance expectations clear to the onboarded employee
  • Provide for frequent opportunities to touch base, ask questions, and provide feedback 

Training Curriculum for Defined Jobs 

Once a newly hired employee has completed the initial phases of onboarding (we’re discussing in particular orientation and general onboarding here), they’re going to begin what they were hired to do: getting to work and doing their job. 

And that’s the next opportunity (or responsibility) we have to help the employee develop skills—have a well-defined training curriculum in place for each of your organization’s current job roles. Actually, this can be considered a continuation of the onboarding process, but let’s ignore that for now.

Newly hired employees frequently quit when they get on the job and discover they’re not being supported with training to help them succeed. This can lead to serious employee retention problems, as the organization had just sunk a lot of time, money, and work into recruiting, hiring, and onboarding the new employee and now has to go through the cycle again. 

Likewise, employees who are moving from one role to another in your organization also benefit from having a training curriculum in place when they can move into the new job, as they’ll no-doubt have to learn new skills as well. 

Provide Cross-Training Opportunities to Employees 

Once a worker is firmly established in his or her new job, and has capacity and time to learn more, cross-training the employee to perform other jobs is a good training option.

Cross-training helps the organization because it makes it easier to substitute a worker from one job role into a different job role when employees are absent, when particular job roles need additional staffing, or in difficult circumstances such as those brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Workers also benefit from and appreciate cross-training. It allows them to get more insight into other job roles, possibly finding new roles that might be more attractive to them than their current role, even if it’s a lateral job shift instead of a promotion. Cross-training also helps the employee get a better idea of the workplace’s “big picture” in terms of how the organization works and can help prepare the worker for their next actual promotion (instead of merely a lateral move) as well as possibly a future management position.

Training Paths for Career Growth 

In addition to training an employee for his/her current job and cross-training the employee to fill-in when needed on other jobs, another thing for your L&D department to do is create defined training paths for your employee’s career growth.

When an employee can see there’s a defined training path to assist him or her through the entire employment lifecycle with your organization, the employee is more likely to be an engaged worker and more likely to stay with your company. This is because the employee sees you’ve put thought and effort behind creating these career training paths and that there really is room for career development with your company. 

These kind of defined training paths that lead to new jobs in a career path are a great advantage to your company when you’re attracting new talent and also in retaining new talent. And the engagement that comes with that satisfied worker is a potent super-power for your company’s productivity and bottom line. 

Invest in Online Training Tools & Blends

Online training, including elearning courses and a learning management system, is pretty much essential for manufacturers today. 

Off-the-shelf manufacturing elearning courses created by manufacturing training providers help workers acquire critical knowledge and develop essential job skills. Training providers create elearning courses that are generally applicable in all manufacturing sites, such as basics on lean manufacturing, quality, and occupational safety; courses that are relevant to specific industries, such as chemical processing, pharmaceuticals, power generation, and oil and gas; and training that trains people on specific job roles. 

Additionally, manufacturers can add custom-created elearning courses to the off-the-shelf elearning courses to better train their employees on their own unique work processes. This can be done in partnership with a training provider or by using simple-to-use elearning authoring tools such as those created by Lectora, Adobe, or Articulate (there are many more as well). 

Finally, a learning management system, or LMS, designed for manufacturing employers can help manage and administer your entire training program, including training that occurs online (elearning, quizzes, virtual instructor-led training, PDFs, etc.) and training that occurs offline (instructor-led training, OJT, offsite training, conferences, and more).

You might find the additional resources helpful as you consider online training tools and resources to help you improve the skills of your workplace:

Keep in Mind Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Motivation is an important driver of learning, skill development, and innovation. And according to the book Drive by Daniel Pink, today’s workers are less motivated by extrinsic motivation (think carrot-and-stick here) and are more motivated by intrinsic motivating factors and most especially, by having a sense of autonomy, by being able to develop mastery, and by feeling a sense of a larger purpose in their workplace.

Training is important for skill development, but you’ll remember earlier we mentioned training isn’t the entire answer to the skill gap problem. Help workers develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose and watch how their motivation drives them to develop new, essential skills. 

Develop and Invest in Manager-Employee Relationships

Employees don’t develop all of their key job skills on their own and they don’t develop them all in training sessions or through training courses. Instead, they learn a lot from coworkers, and in particular their managers play a key role. 

This isn’t necessarily something every manager knows they should be doing, and it’s not unusual for managers to do less than they could in helping workers develop skills. 

But when a manager makes a concerted effort to help the employees on his or her team develop job skills, this is a critical workplace skill accelerator. To do this, a manager should have frequent check-ins with employees, focusing on asking questions and asking how the manager can help the employee or team be more productive; understand what’s being addressed in training sessions and being ready to support those training messages when the workers back on the job; routinely providing feedback to employees; and more. 

Focus on Individuals AND Teams

It’s important to think of a worker’s skill level and job performance, but the fact is that many workers in manufacturing facilities today learn and work in teams. 

This means in addition to hard skills, such as how to start-up a machine, maintain a pump, operate a forklift, or test product for quality, so-called “soft skills” related to working with others are essential: communication, problem-solving, teamwork, project management, critical thinking, and openness to differences. 

Research has found that teams work best when workers have a sense of psychological safety at work. To learn even more about the secrets of high-performing work teams, we recommend Amy Edmonson’s book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy (2012). 

Provide Training to Help Production Workers Become Managers 

Earlier, we mentioned what a critical role managers play (or sometimes sadly don’t play) in the success of the workers they supervise, including knowledge acquisition and skill development. 

When considering the importance of management and how it’s related to skill development at your organization, another thing to think about is providing your current non-managerial workforce a viable path to become managers and providing training to help them develop those essential managerial skills they may not currently have. 

Providing a path for workers to move into management will help with the issues concerning attracting and hiring talent, keeping workers engaged, and improving employee retention. It will also help you build a staff of managers who know your company inside-out-and-backwards, which will also surely be a competitive advantage for your organization. 

Become a Learning Organization 

Training is one part of your organization’s learning efforts and is essential to skill development within your workforce. 

However, organizations that really excel at learning are known as learning organizations. To be clear, all organizations learn (see this article on organizational culture and the definition of organizational culture for more context on that), but some learn more often and more effectively than others. It’s those organizations who excel in learning that are known as learning organizations.

What is a learning organization? The term is often associated with Peter Senge, who with his book The Fifth Discipline helped to introduce the term to a wider audience. Senge defines a learning organization this way in The Fifth Discipline:

 “Learning organizations [are] organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

According to Senge (again, in The Fifth Discipline) learning organizations share their characteristics: 

Another great resource on learning organizations is the article “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” by Gino, Garvin, and Edmonson that originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review. According to that article, learning organizations have: 

  • Supportive learning environments, including psychological safety; an appreciation of differences; an openness to new ideas; and time for reflection
  • Concrete learning practices and processes, including experimentation to develop and test new products; keeping track of trends with competitors, customers, and technology; analysis and interpretation to identify and solve problems; and education and training for new and established employees
  • Leadership that encourages and reinforces learning, including asking questions of and listening to workers; stressing the importance of and spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflection; and considering alternative points of view

Is your organization a learning organization? If not, what can you do to make improvements along these lines? 

How Vector Solutions Can Help Fill Your Manufacturing Skills Gap

Vector Solutions can help your organization close that skills gap with our learning management system, which was built specifically at the request of manufacturing clients like your organization, step-by-step; elearning courses for manufacturing, with thousands of titles your organization will find useful, including both general manufacturing and industry-specific courses; our organization’s expertise in manufacturing training and performance improvement, which our customers routinely leverage for better training results; resources for customers and non-customers alike, such as our blog, our webinars, and our free downloadables, and much more. 

Our manufacturing training elearning library includes courses on:

  • Facilities Maintenance
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Core Industrial Skills
  • Electrical Maintenance
  • Electronics 
  • Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) 
  • Instrumentation & Control 
  • IT & Cybersecurity
  • Lab Operations
  • Mechanical Maintenance
  • Power Generation 
  • Process Operations 
  • Professional Development
  • Project Management 
  • Transportation Safety 

Additionally, we have industry-specific elearning courses for the following industries: 

  • Chemical Processing
  • Corrugated Manufacturing
  • Industrial Maintenance
  • Mining/MSHA Compliance
  • Oil & Gas
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Power Generation
  • Pulp, Paper & Tissue Manufacturing
  • Electrical Transmission & Distribution 

Contact us to see how easy it is to begin using our online training tools to help you close your manufacturing skills gap. We’d be happy to set up a demo, show you some previews, and get you launched on your learning adventure soon.

Contact us for more information

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