1121 Insight From

By Terry Brei, president and proprietor of Sure Controls Inc.

If you ask a manufacturing executive to describe their biggest challenge, they will probably say it’s attracting and retaining labor. The labor shortage has proved to be a significant concern for all manufacturers. But perhaps manufacturers who have been resistant to automation and digital transformation feel the struggle most acutely.

A 2018 report from Deloitte estimates that 2.6 million baby boomers will retire from the manufacturing industry over the next 10 years. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate in the manufacturing sector is 9.1 percent despite an aggressive $14 million recruiting campaign from the National Association of Manufacturers. It’s time for a new, long-term approach to talent challenges. The digital transformation of our industry will have a huge impact on how and who we hire.

The labor shortage isn’t only hard on employers. It also negatively impacts the employees who feel overwhelmed because of regularly understaffed shifts. By automating repetitive, monotonous tasks, employees are free to take on work that might require creativity or problem-solving. Relieving employees from mindless work often results in higher job satisfaction and can ultimately boost productivity as well as employee retention.

Transitioning the workforce

Thanks to automation and digital transformation, a new type of workforce is needed. Of course, investing in recruiting will always be necessary, but perhaps the more important investment is in employee development. Creating an in-house education program is a must for any employer concerned about the baby boomer mass exodus.

Offering both online and hands-on curriculum is essential to the program’s success. It’s also important to identify individuals who have the aptitude to learn and are likely to stay with the company. These individuals can be part of transition planning. A mentor or buddy program can be helpful in ensuring newer employees acclimate quickly to the company culture. Consider offering career-progression planning to employees of varying levels, which in turn helps with employee engagement. It also is worth offering baby boomers a more flexible or even part-time schedule while new employees are developing the needed skills. This could mean the difference between a smooth transition of skills and experiencing an unnecessary disruption.

A new approach to hiring

As the open manufacturing positions become increasingly technical, companies will need to take a different approach to hiring. Developing strategic partnerships with Wisconsin universities and technical colleges has been helpful for our organization. We’ve developed productive and meaningful relationships with the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Fox Valley Technical College, UW-Oshkosh, Gateway Technical College and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. We’re fortunate to be based in a state with a top-notch university program and high-quality technical colleges. It’s hard to overstate the value these relationships can bring. When we identify students who are a solid fit, we often offer entry-level positions with a flexible schedule so they can balance both school and work while finishing their program. By offering internships and co-op programs to students at local technical colleges and high schools, we can build a talent pipeline.

Outreach and image efforts

The stereotypical image of the manufacturing industry also can present a challenge when attempting to attract talent. Organizing tours and open house events helps showcase just how much the industry has evolved. This past August, we hosted an open house. We invited customers, suppliers, employees’ families and prospective employees. It allowed candidates to get a more accurate representation of modern manufacturing and their prospective work environment. We’ve also welcomed high school students to tour our operation to give a better understanding of the advancements our industry is making. The old perception of manufacturing being boring often is debunked after a demonstration of how our team works with advanced technologies in thermal fluid process control, web handling and robotics. There is a great benefit in helping students better understand how technology has changed our industry.

The digital transformation has provided a lot of opportunity but also a good deal of challenges. It has allowed us to automate jobs that were going unfilled and reduce our reliance on unskilled labor. However, it also presents a new challenge of creating and developing the workforce that we need today and the years to come. How well we navigate the digital transformation and corresponding talent challenge will determine our organization’s overall success. 

Terry Brei is the president and sole proprietor of Sure Controls Inc. in Greenville. His passion is empowering those around him to think creatively and find their “why.” He received his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and held several engineering and industrial management positions before joining Sure Controls in 2014.