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Manufacturing is facing a huge skills shortage. So what can businesses do to protect and retain talent within their organisation? Senior Manufacturing Advisor Geoff Crossley shares some expert insight from his experiences working with SMEs in Greater Manchester.

If you speak to a director of a manufacturing company in any industry, they will tell you one of the hardest parts of their job is finding people.

At one end of the spectrum, we have an ageing skilled workforce that is close to retirement. COVID-19 made matters worse; a lot of older employees chose to retire early and a huge chunk of intelligence disappeared almost overnight.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are difficulties getting young people into manufacturing. And many of those that have come in are also leaving early, often citing burnout and a lack of appreciation.

This means the jobs market is extremely competitive. At the same time, 90% of manufacturing workers say they are open to moving to a new job, so loyalty is not guaranteed. For most manufacturers, it feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Now, we can’t magic new people out of nowhere. But what we can do is reduce the risk of ‘brain drain’ – the loss of skills and knowledge within your organisation to competitors or other industries.

There are two sides to this challenge.


1. Protecting critical knowledge and skills

Firstly, we need to reduce the risk of critical knowledge and skills disappearing if people leave.

To do this you need to map out and understand exactly what you have at your disposal, and put systems in place to ensure you aren’t overly reliant on specific individuals.

  • Mapping your skills base

One of the things we advisors talk about regularly is the importance of process mapping and value stream mapping as a way of understanding the flow of materials through an organisation. If you haven’t mapped what’s really happening at every stage of your process, you will find it very difficult to do any successful continuous improvement work.

You can use the exact same mapping process to capture the flow of people and knowledge through your organisation as well. Rather than mapping what triggers a call for a component or a tool, you map what triggers a call for a specific person or skill. What happens when something goes wrong? Who is involved? Who sends the information? Who reports into whom?

As you’re going through this exercise, take note of critical or unique knowledge that is in short supply. If there’s an employee that can do something unique, or understands a process much better than the rest of the workforce, that’s a really dangerous place to be. You have a single point of failure; if they leave, you’re in trouble.

It’s crucial you capture what these people know and integrate it into Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) so the knowledge can spread across your organisation.

  • The rule of three

There is one rule of thumb we recommend to every manufacturer when it comes to skills: ensure every employee is capable of doing three jobs, and every job can be done by three people.

We call this 1:3 3:1 ratio ‘robustness in manufacturing’. If you are overly-reliant on specific individuals, your workforce is not robust enough to deal with shock events like being overloaded with work or someone handing in their resignation. It’s also a key part of succession planning: who is going to take over when your most skilled individual retires?

A warning: this can be a sensitive topic that needs to be managed carefully. For some people, having their expert knowledge spread around can feel quite threatening.

I’ve written before about an example of one manufacturer I worked with where a manager refused to implement a new system because he felt it would make his unique knowledge redundant.

If you have a person like this, it’s important you help them understand that what they’re doing isn’t making themselves less valuable, they’re making the organisation as a whole more secure. That means their job is actually less at risk, because their employer is more resilient.


2.  Preventing people from leaving

In addition to managing the risk of people leaving, you obviously need to prevent people from feeling like they want to leave in the first place.

The most obvious solution is to offer a good salary. But this approach is actually becoming less and less effective.

  • Providing a sense of connection

While money is of course important – especially during a cost of living crisis – there are other factors at play. In fact, research shows pay is only the top priority for a quarter of manufacturing workers.

The truth is, compensation in manufacturing is already proportionately better than most other lines of work. A good salary over time becomes just a hygiene factor, a minimum requirement. In my experience, a lack of appreciation and engagement (perceived or otherwise) is a much more serious problem.

Does your company work to engage with all your staff? Do your staff feel appreciated? It’s a fact of life in manufacturing that business leaders tend to focus on machines and components more than people, but manufacturing is still a people business. It’s good to always remember that communicating with people on a human level and understanding what motivates them is vitally important and works incredibly well.

Something I see all too often is people coming into work, not talking to anyone, not seeing anyone, putting on their ear defenders and working on a machine all day, completely isolated from everybody else. Is that person likely to be a motivated individual who will remain loyal if a job opportunity arises elsewhere?

People rarely leave their job because of one big blowup. It’s the little niggles that build up over time. It might be as simple as a manager making a throwaway comment that leaves a sour taste in the mouth, or not listening to a suggestion, or not being given the right safety kit one day.

Individually, these events may not seem like a big deal, but they gradually sap the loyalty out of a workforce. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s why making people feel valued and appreciated every day is vital.

  • Involving people in continuous improvement

One of the best ways to motivate people and help them feel appreciated is to involve them in reshaping and improving processes. Give them a voice in how their part of the process can be improved.

This goes for your process mapping exercise as well. I can guarantee that most of the time, how you think a process works is not actually how it’s getting done in reality. The people doing the work have almost always added a few workarounds here and there.

Until you do a proper process map that includes them in the conversation, you won’t truly understand your process. More importantly, they won’t feel respected – or respect you – when you implement changes without a thought to how they were already doing things.

However, if you empower people to get involved and take ownership, you will find that they will feel more valued and take more pride in their work. You will also find that you are much better at solving problems.


Real-world example

I have a brilliant, real-world example of a company that has taken all of the above on board.

Thomas Storey, a manufacturer of steel-fabricated products in Manchester, is a business with a lot of highly skilled workers, so brain drain is a real risk.

When I first visited the factory, the director admitted they had a problem with workers on the shopfloor not wanting to talk. In his own words, they had taken their “eyes off the ball” when it came to people and processes. But they have done a fantastic job of turning things around.

Rather than focusing entirely on output like they did before, daily team meetings now involve collaborative problem solving. They have an operations committee to look at working conditions and benefits. They have a new pay grade system based on safety, quality and delivery. They have refurbished staff facilities. They give people ownership of their work.

Phil says himself that Thomas Storey has achieved “game changing” results: “We’ve even had someone who had left because of the old pay structure return after hearing about our new approach – they said the difference was like night and day. People really want to work here now.”

That’s how we are going to stop the brain drain dead in its tracks.


Join one of our upcoming training cohorts

As we’ve seen, the risks of brain drain can be navigated through a combination of good leadership and skills management.

Good news – both of those elements play an important role in two of our fully-funded training programmes: Lean Champion, for those responsible for continuous improvement in their organisation, and Manufacturing Culture and Leadership, for line managers and production managers. Sign up for our next cohorts today!


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