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Update: August 31, 2022

Employee Retention: Manufacturers, If You’re Not Doing What it Takes to Attract and Retain Talent, You’re Underperforming

Employee retention in US manufacturing

U.S. manufacturing workplace culture needs a radical overhaul. When less than 50% of the upcoming workforce sees manufacturing as a viable career path and only 3 in 10 parents would steer their children towards a career in manufacturing, the problem is gigantic.

We’ve focused on talent acquisition and employee retention strategies in U.S. manufacturing over the past several months, and the situation shows some signs of improvement. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report, employment in manufacturing grew by 30,000 in July 2022 and is 41,000 above its February 2020 level. The manufacturing 1-month diffusion index increased 5.4 points to 66.9. A number above 50 indicates that more manufacturing industries are adding jobs than are losing jobs. But now is not the time to rest on our laurels, as they say. Overall, manufacturing is still predicted to lose jobs on an unprecedented scale by 2030. So, there’s a lot more work to do.

Recently we examined the tightening skilled labor pool and multiple ways to attract, train, and retain the right workforce for your organization. A recent insightful IndustryWeek article illustrates our point and turns up the heat on the issue. U.S. manufacturing demand still has tremendous steam, but meeting that demand is hampered by a failure to attract and retain a skilled workforce.

The article discusses several innovative approaches to help solve the hiring crisis in manufacturing over the long haul. But, the idea that stood out was the need to “celebrate manufacturing as a great place to work.” We agree. U.S. manufacturing workplace culture needs a radical overhaul. When less than 50% of the upcoming workforce sees manufacturing as a viable career path and only 3 in 10 parents would steer their children towards a career in manufacturing, the problem is gigantic.

The perception of what it means to start and grow a career in manufacturing in the United States is damaged goods. It’s spoilage rolling off the assembly line. If your organization were running with these kinds of output numbers, you would not last long. And what do those numbers say to the people that are in their manufacturing careers? Are they proud to tell their family and friends what they do for a living? Or are they looking outside your organization to better themselves? 

I recently spent some time speaking with a young worker at a chicken processing and distribution plant here in the southeast. He works second shift in logistics driving heavy equipment, loading unending palettes of processed-packaged frozen chicken. There were a couple of revelations in our discussion. First, he had very little understanding of how important he was to the organization’s overall success. You could tell he felt like a cog, disposable and easily replaceable. The second eye-opener was that he knew the only way to have any real power or a career with the company long term was to be in management, “being in charge of other people,” as he put it. The missing element? He had no idea how to get there from within his own company. 

He is a young man of thirty-three, a high school graduate, an honor student, in fact, with a new baby at home. And, he had been on the job for years. So, his motivation to better himself for his family was all there. However, the desire to stay at his current position was not. He is leaving his job for greener pastures, better opportunities. Although his reasons for moving on were complicated, a simple fact remains. If he felt he could stay with his current employer and advance to making the income necessary to care for his growing family, he might stay. But, the worst part, no one bothered to find out. Unfortunately, stories like this one are rampant in manufacturing.

So, what can we do as leaders to change the perception of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.?

First things first, do what it takes to keep the people you have

Begin with your frontline leaders. If you are not conducting employee retention interviews with your frontline leaders, schedule them now. The only way to know if you have key people contemplating leaving for better opportunities is to engage with them in meaningful dialogue. Frontline leaders are also the gateway to understanding the rest of your workforce – their motivation for staying or leaving. The cost of training new people in your organization outstrips the cost of keeping existing people by a wide margin. And there’s a positive correlation between practical workplace training and employee loyalty. Simply retaining the people you have reduces costs and increases productivity almost automatically.

Second, get your frontline leaders on a pathway towards advancement

If your frontline leaders are not expressly aware of how they can move up in your organization, change that now. As mentioned earlier, organized and consistent training and development have a positive impact on employee loyalty. If you have well-established and communicated pathways to advance within your organization, combined with the necessary training to get there, you will foster employee loyalty. Once achieved, recognize and celebrate the people who have stepped up and attained the next level. Thank them personally, celebrate them within your organization, out loud so everyone can see and hear, and recognize them professionally, on social media channels such as LinkedIn.

Here are five more things you can do today to increase employee retention and attract new talent, especially among your frontline leaders

1. Listen

Actively listen to your frontline leaders. Don’t just look at the data and KPIs. Be out on the shop floor interacting and engaging with your frontline managers and supervisors to understand what they face daily. Go live in their shoes. You will see and hear your frontline leaders’ frustrations and challenges firsthand. And be prepared to act on what you find out. 

2. Communicate Clearly

Clear communication and documentation of reasonable job performance expectations and opportunities for advancement are essential. It is incredible how often this fundamental skill is overlooked, often when change occurs, like when new technology or systems are onboarded. If you bring new technology into the workplace or dramatic change like heightened demand pressure, clearly communicated expectations are critical. Nothing can discourage an employee more than when the rules and expectations change and no one tells them.

3. Encourage and Praise

You do not want to learn that a vital frontline leader is burned out and ready to leave by receiving their resignation. However, telltale signs often lead up to a person quitting, and you should not overlook them. Encourage the use of time off and other employee wellness programs. Praise your workforce openly when you see the behaviors you want to see.

4. Train and Develop

Improve your frontline leadership development and training. People want to do well, and they want to advance. It is that simple. But often, they do not have the skills, knowledge, or experience required to perform at the next level in your organization. And, if you’ve promoted them without the proper training, it can be a recipe for dissatisfaction and leaving the job. Offering training opportunities to workers can increase employee loyalty to their employer. Educational opportunities tell your workforce and frontline leaders that you’re willing to invest in them, increasing employee loyalty and retention.

5. Coach and Mentor

Checking in with your frontline leaders often and providing ongoing coaching and mentoring sessions are vital to employee retention. Knowing that a coaching session is coming up and that you will listen to any concerns can mitigate daily workplace pressure and firefighting. Pair your aging and experienced leaders and workers with your young up and comers. Creating these mentoring opportunities can increase a sense of importance for your aging workers, transfer vast amounts of experience and knowledge, and grow new workers’ sense of belonging and commitment to your company.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line, U.S. manufacturing needs to stop treating their workforce as expendable and easily replaced. As we’re finding out right now, they’re not. Instead, we need to increase the pride of working in American Manufacturing. People need to feel they can come into a career in manufacturing and pursue their dreams through it. I’m reminded of the oft-used but applicable Sir Richard Branson quote, “train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.” It’s high time we took this to heart and made it a reality for manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

The POWERS Difference

Two of the primary focuses at POWERS are on the training and development of your frontline leaders and helping you build the kind of substantive, operational culture that is attractive to young workers and leads to long-term employee retention. We also have programs specifically designed to fill key leadership roles and help your organization meet unplanned hiring requirements. 

To schedule an initial discovery and analysis with our dedicated management consulting team, please call us at +1 678-971-4711, email us at info@thepowerscompany.com, or provide your contact information here.

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About the Author

Dr. Donte Vaughn, DM, MSM, Culture Performance Management Advisor
Dr. Donte Vaughn, DM, MSM

Chief Culture Officer

Dr. Donte Vaughn is CEO of CultureWorx and Culture Performance Management Advisor to POWERS.

Randall Powers, Founder, Managing Partner
Randall Powers

Managing Partner

Randall Powers concentrates on Operational and Financial Due Diligence, Strategic Development,, and Business Development.