by Rob Harris and Pavel Kuviarzin
Manufacturing is a very broad industry, with many niche markets within it, including medical, marine, signage, machining, pharmaceutical, and various specialty items. In interviewing over 40 manufacturers relating to skills gaps in the industry, every conversation fell back to a basic common denominator, foundational or soft skills.
Workplace factors are changing as the generations of employees change, and COVID accelerated that. Technology is accelerating at speeds we’ve never seen, yet many still rely heavily on human staffing.
Because of the various types of manufacturers, the core competencies and critical skills needed in their workforce differ. But with many, the answers related to basic skills. Over 80 percent of those surveyed confirmed that candidates lack enthusiasm, dedication, basic math and measuring skills, language skills, dexterity, knowledge of hand tools, critical thinking, the ability to troubleshoot, and using basic business software were all common answers based upon recent hiring history. Some did give specific manufacturing skills which were lacking: stainless TIG welding, writing code for processors and controllers, blueprint reading, machine programming, machine maintenance, and CNC set up. But why are employers more focused on basic employment skills rather than production-specific technical skills?
Currently less than 10 percent of applicants have the skills manufacturers desire, and as a result manufacturers are spending many hours training new hires extensively on basic skills.
In both the state and in our region, there are more unfilled career opportunities than job seekers. According to FutureMakers Coalition, only 42 percent of Southwest Florida adult-aged residents have credentials, certifications, or degrees above a high school diploma. Put those two statistics together, and employers are forced to hire at the entry level rather than mid- to upper-level positions. They are promoting within, but when they cannot, they are struggling to fill skilled positions. The real root cause could be that most of our local high school talent, whether college bound or not, do not know of the 1,000+ manufacturers in the Southwest Florida region, so they go elsewhere or into other industries. Throw in the lack of affordable housing, and the employee potentially has to travel an hour each way to work.
Manufacturers in SWFL constantly struggle with high turnover. Over 90 percent of those surveyed confirmed that the highest turnover is usually at the entry level positions such as general labor and assembly.
Adding it all up, the low number of applicants, plus applicants missing basic skills, plus 35 percent expected staffing growth, plus college educated talent going elsewhere, plus entry level high turnover, plus lack of housing, equals a huge challenge. This challenge is not just in the manufacturing sector, but also in healthcare, education and logistics.
The good news is that we have a collaborative effort in fixing the problem. Together with other FutureMakers Coalition partners, the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association (SRMA), we are moving the needle from the current 42 percent to 55 percent by 2025. We are taking the data collected from our manufacturers and working with educational entities to create, expand and duplicate training programs to meet their needs. FutureMakers Navigators are finding people who started a path towards a degree, credential or certification, but did not finish. These are people who may have personal obstacles going back to school or gaining employment.
Our manufacturers are committing to using this system when needing employees, rather than posting opportunities on Indeed.com. This is a phenomenal investment in our community and is a win for everyone involved.
Manufacturers also have the opportunity to invest in their incumbent workforce by offering upskill training within the newly created resources. There are various apprenticeship programs they can participate in, offering a learning and financial growth path for newer employees and mentorships for their long-time superstars. Research shows that investing in people will yield a higher retainment of staff.
Emerging technologies such as robotics, automation, and AI may lead one to believe that entry-level skills and positions will be eliminated, but the opposite holds true. None of our survey participants said that current skill sets will go away in the future. Production workers will still be needed, but companies know that they must adapt to these new technologies, and our educational partners need to lead the way in training the workforce of the future. Larger manufacturers prefer on-site training, and smaller ones were more apt to send employees off-site for training, meaning hands-on and online training programs need to be offered.
The SRMA is excited to be a part of the ecosystem required to make a difference. Going from 42 to 55 percent translates to thousands of lives positively impacted, improving the economic health of our region and making Southwest Florida a great place to live and work.
Rob Harris is the Executive Director of the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association, a FutureMaker, sits on the Horizon Council and i-TECH CME Advisory Board.
Pavel Kuviarzin is the Business Advisor of the Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association, a FutureMaker, and holds CPIM and PMP designations.