36 min read

How to Attract and Retain a Qualified Manufacturing Workforce

Welcome to the first episode of The Voices of Manufacturing! Join us in conversation with Jim Vinoski, a Forbes Author who specializes in all things manufacturing.

As manufacturing businesses face workforce shortages and perception problems, Jim and Brian talk about the actionable steps that companies of any size can begin implementing today. Jim also focuses on strategies for retaining top talent and giving your workforce clear paths towards development.

A full transcript along with additional resources are listed below.

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Additional Resources


Episode 1: The Voices of Manufacturing

Brian Sallee:  Well Jim, why don't you tell us a little bit about your background. I know you've got a lot of manufacturing experience. You worked at General Mills for over a decade and a half and it seems like you've been in the industry for a long time. Tell us a little bit about your background. 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah. Over three decades, total in manufacturing. Got a mechanical engineering degree. And I started work down in Mississippi in the chemical industry, and did that for a few years.

I've done food ingredients, paints and coatings, and then lots of time, obviously there in  food and beverage proper with General Mills. Spent a little bit of time in beverage alcohol - bourbon. That was a lot of fun.  And in dairy processing. So yeah, a lot of different pieces of manufacturing in my personal background, the coolest thing is I've been writing for Forbes about manufacturing now for about three years.

Jim Vinoski - Forbes 13And anyone in manufacturing only scratching the surface of what manufacturing truly represents. So getting to get out and talk to people across the whole swath of manufacturing and tell their stories has just been, so much fun. Everything from, one of my most recent was concealed carry wear for women to rocket thrusters they're making up here in the upper peninsula of Michigan, to folks who are looking at how we solve the rare earth minerals crisis.

Brian Sallee: Excellent. So you're doing a lot of, with your new kind of role of doing some consulting work, you're doing a lot of different things, seeing a lot of different industries within manufacturing then, it seems like. 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah. For me personally, it's always been one of the coolest places to work.

And now seeing so much more and hearing from all these other people who are involved in such different things, I'm fully committed to manufacturing, being the most awesome place to build a career. 

That's awesome. 

Brian Sallee: That leads us into what I want to talk about next. And this is something you wrote about on Forbes.

And I believe the article you wrote the title was, How Can We Create the Manufacturing Workforce We Need? And this one, this is a topic that, is coming up quite a bit. I'm seeing this in the industry where there's just a lot of open positions. It's hard to find people with the right skills.

And then you've also got all these people retiring. So there are all these challenges that, we've never seen before in manufacturing quite like this. And so I want to dig in with you a little bit about how do we solve, especially around the sourcing challenge?

Deloitte came out with a study earlier this month, and they said at any given moment, last six months, there's been over half a million job openings in manufacturing.  And so how are we gonna solve that challenge? And I think they even said, in the next 10 years, by 2030, we're going to have 2.1 million job openings potentially in manufacturing.

And so the problem's not going away. Love to hear some of the ideas that you're considering for this. 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah you hit the nail on the head, the problem isn't going away, and we can talk all we want about automation and that's going to play a part, but it's not going to solve the problem. And the problem's multifaceted.

We've had a generation now where young people aren't introduced to technical things to mechanical things. We used to have shop classes and skilled trades training in our high schools. And there's still some of that, but it's largely gone away. And so you have people coming into the workforce, they still have the capability, but they've never been exposed.

So now we're behind even bringing people who are willing to come in to get them up to speed and get them contributing on the floor. The other thing is, unfortunately, we've also had something of a 50-year war on manufacturing in this country. We've painted it as this horrible, dirty, polluting, dead-end.

And, keep repeating that over and over or young people take it to heart. And so we don't have the numbers of people who are interested in working in manufacturing. So we, in industry, have a responsibility to help turn that around and to do some marketing at the same time the jobs have changed.

And it's bad enough that wasn't accurate. Even going back a few decades, that's more than not accurate today in that, there's been so much automation and so much regulation that manufacturing jobs. You know, there are still those corners that are dirty and hot and uncomfortable, but most of them are high-tech.

A lot of them working in temperature-controlled environments, certainly clean, meeting the regulations for air quality and for all the safety aspects. So we really have to be communicating that to our up-and-coming workforce. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. So you really see it as the way we're marketing manufacturing or manufacturers are marketing themselves.

They're not overcoming some of the stigmas that have been built up over the last few decades. That's one of the big challenges?

Jim Vinoski: Definitely. And even the point of there being a career as well, it used to be certainly the reality that people would go into manufacturing and work in a given job for their whole careers.

And that was it. And that's very rarely the case anymore. And there's certainly, if you want to work on the floor and do a certain job and get really good at it, that's great. We need those people who are deeply skilled and talented. But at the same time, if you want to better yourself, I can't think of a better place than manufacturing; for looking at what that next opportunity is and getting additional education and training, and being able to move up the ladder. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. That seems like a really big challenge that manufacturers haven't done a good job overcoming, which is, “What's the career path look like here?”

“If I take this role, how am I going to get to X role in the future? How long is it going to take me to get there?”

You know, I've talked with quite a few, younger folks who are in manufacturing and that's been one of the challenges that they've seen at their positions is there's no clear path for how I move up into the company. 

Do you have any good examples of companies that are doing that and how they're doing it? 

Jim Vinoski: There are quite a few companies now that provide internal training opportunities. One of the companies I wrote about was the UBS business school.

So UBS, being a forest products company right here, where I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And they realized they weren't getting the trained people they needed to build their management ranks. And so rather than try to go outside and get that they built their own internal business school.

And now they have, it's a mix of both internal candidates, and those can be from any corner of the business right down to the factory floors, as well as graduating high school students and people who are coming from an experienced previous job into it. And so it's an accelerated two-year program where they have their own internal educators, people, right?

As part of their business who take on a role as an educator that run these students through the classes, they have a hands-on experience that they do an internship within the company and in the end, they're then eligible for any position in the company that would otherwise require a college degree.

Brian Sallee: Oh, that's interesting. So they've done a good job. It sounds like it making it clear, “If you come in at this role, here are some steps you could take to get to this role.” There are options that potentially take you outside of the plant or in that case, maybe it's a mill. 

Jim Vinoski: Right. Yeah. And to me, that's one of the key things is that we've really got to be more aggressive at building those kinds of programs within our companies, because we can't expect people to come on and just say, yeah, we need people. So you're just going to come here and, no further development through your career. You're just going to work. This one job that you came into, that's just not realistic. You know, it really never should have been realistic, but certainly in today's environment.

Young people wanting to build a career and have different experiences. We're going to have to offer that to get people in the door. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah, absolutely. Well continuing on with, how do we change the perception of manufacturing so that it's easier to fill some of these roles?

What are some other things that you're seeing companies do? You know? We often hear from manufacturers that they're competing against, retail stores for talent. McDonald's, even places like Amazon, which offer maybe a higher initial starting base hourly rate.

And so what are some things that manufacturers should be considering or should be maybe even doing to be more competitive against, some of these other industries that they're competing against for this talent, this entry-level, talent

Jim Vinoski:  Face reality for one, if someone's worth $15, $16, $17 an hour at McDonald's flipping burgers, aren't they worth more than that running our machines and making our products.

And there, there are market realities that we're going to have to face, and I think it's been. This double-edged sword in manufacturing for the last decade or two, where we're constantly chasing these efficiencies and trying to drive out costs that's admirable. But when you're doing it on the backs of your people, that's not admirable, it's the exact opposite.

We need to pay people what they're worth and understanding that any manufacturing job should pay higher than a fast-food job. That should be fundamental. And then again, I think it goes to the marketing. If you're going into a fast-food job, you may well move up over time into a management position.

But I think those opportunities are much more limited in that world. Same thing in retail. Or, we talk about Amazon, Amazon's obviously done very well for themselves and they're in some way. Doing the things we need to be doing, marketing ourselves, paying well, offering those opportunities.

But if you go to Amazon, you're not going to go be an executive at Amazon, you're going to work in a warehouse. Whereas if we do the right things in manufacturing, we can create that clear path where someone coming in the door, working on the equipment in the processing or packaging environment has that path to greater things. If that's what they're interested in. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. So we've hit on two things at this point, we've talked about, being more competitive when it comes to base pay and maybe the benefits package as well. And then the other thing we talked about is doing a better job uh, laying out a career path for people that you do hire and bring into the organization so that they can see a future for themselves at that company.

Are there any other strategies or tactics that you've thought of, or you're seeing other manufacturers implement to help fill some of these open roles and get people into the door? 

Jim Vinoski:  When it comes to just the nuts and bolts of recruiting, there are plenty of different levers to pull; job fairs and partnerships with things like community colleges or tech schools. It's really about building those local networks so that you have something of a funnel where these different educational and business development companies or schools are now identifying you as an employer of choice.

And so there's a lot of different things you can do by reaching out to these resources that are already out there. Same thing with the manufacturing extension partnerships. Nonprofits in every area of the country that will work, not just on recruiting, but really on any challenge you have in your manufacturing world, that's what they're there for.

That's what they exist for. Make use of those existing assets. And too many of us aren't even aware they exist. And then it really has to be about valuing the people, when you do get people in the door. You know, I hate the term human resources. That to me is just horrible. 

It's like they're another machine. When you bring people in they're anything but a machine; they're partners that can help you build your business. They can be your success if you treat them right. 

We talk a lot about Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma and all these different improvement efforts. Those shouldn't be things you force down to people on the floor.

They should be things that you're engaged upfront with the people on the frontlines because they're your experts. And that starts from the day they walk in the door because they're the ones spending the vast majority of their time in your systems, on your machines, making your product. And so if you don't value them that way yeah, then they're going to go somewhere else, whether where they're going to be valued. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. Let's talk about that. Cause that ties into another topic I wanted to discuss with you, which is retaining employees. I think, training new hires, training, existing employees, it ties into the retainment side as well.

As you mentioned there, the idea really is to give more ownership to, your frontline workers, your operators, your technicians, like you were saying, bring them into the continuous improvement process. What are some, some ideas or strategies that you're seeing from some other companies that are doing this well, because, I see from a lot of manufacturers that, hate the word the term, but it's, they're cogs in the machine for a lot of these manufacturers, and just, as you said, they run the machine every day, but yet no one is seeking out any input from them on how to improve the process, how they could do things differently? So what are some companies that are doing this well? What are some of the ways that they're incorporating these operators and frontline workers?

Jim Vinoski: Toyota is the go-to example there. And you always hear the story of how Toyota executives go to the floor. Yeah, they go and they honor these people who are running the machines. Every employee in Toyota is empowered to shut the process down. If something's not right, they focus on the quality of their products, and everyone in a facility owns that quality.

And it's that treatment of people and how you view them. They're gonna sense that, they're gonna know where they stand in the pecking order. And so a company like Toyota that really exalts its frontline employees, that's the gold standard.

And it can be just those day-to-day things of how you're going to continually improve what you're doing on that existing line. But also, as we said at the outset, there's automation and automation is going to play a huge part in this. There's all this discussion of how robots are going to take our jobs. Well, they are going to take some jobs.

They've been taking jobs for 50 years now. But the jobs they've taken our jobs, no one wants to do anymore because they were the dangerous, dirty, mundane things. And so continuing to work with those frontline employees to say, okay, "what is it about your current job that you don't want to be doing?"

And how do we then use technology to make that better? Same thing with training, training really in way too many cases is still just, "Here, go work with this person and over a certain amount of time, you're going to be considered "trained." -  with no structure, no documentation. 

The documentation piece, I think is necessarily getting better with some of the food safety initiatives and other regulatory requirements. But there is a technology element to training that so many of us are still unaware of.

AI-enabled handhelds, for example, that will literally answer that next question of the person on the floor. Who, a person has a breakdown, it knows that person, it knows the machine. It knows the history and it can say, "okay, this is what's happened, this is your next step. There are so many ways we can use technology that we're currently not doing. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah, absolutely. And but let's dig into the training aspect a little bit and how it ties to retaining employees.

you know, I hear from manufacturers,  you know, retaining is one of the biggest challenges. They've got difficulty filling the open roles. They've got a quarter of their workforce retiring in the next 10 years. So their people are leaving faster than they can replace them. And so the people you do bring in, how do you get the most out of them?

And this seems like an area where a lot of manufacturers don't have a good strategy right now. 

Jim Vinoski: And isn't it such a blind spot? I don't know if this is unique to manufacturing or if it's just the reality across the business world that we, more on the salaried professional end of the spectrum tend to think that people in blue-collar jobs or are working on machinery don't have the same motivations of wanting to be valued, wanting to move up the ladder, wanting to be challenged. 

The first thing to do when you're looking at a retention problem is to say, “If I'm in that job, why do I want to leave?” Is it opportunity? Is it a lack of resources, not having what you need to succeed?

Those are just fundamental things. And then it really has to be about, once again, getting the input from these people who are, again, they're the experts, they're the ones who are possibly being lured away to another place. Is it better pay? Is it better working conditions? Is it a better career path?

It's no different with the people on the manufacturing floor any more than it has been in the salaried ranks forever. And that's the way we need to treat it. 

Brian Sallee: So, when it comes to training I'm a big fan of, continuous development of employees. Here at Dozuki, that's part of what we do is on the training side.

Are there any examples that you've seen from manufacturers that they see the challenges that the industry is going through right now? One area that I hear from a lot of manufacturers, there's an increasing focus on cross-training. I've heard this term, "four operators for every job, four jobs, for every operator.

That's like the goal for some of these manufacturers where they want to get to when it comes to cross-training. What are you seeing out there in the industry right now that to really get the most out of the workforce that you do have? 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah, I think it's it's looking at it as, what's in it for the person that is being trained. So I'm a big believer in cross-training. Again, when you have those manufacturing staffing challenges, they don't tend to be in one place all at once, right? It's, I'm short in this area because these skills are required and I don't have anyone trained in that. So cross-training helps you get ahead of that and be able to shift those workers, job-to-job, as those needs might arise.

But then. Too often in my career, I've seen us cross-train people and expect them to step up and do those things for the same rate of pay. And then, so again, it goes back to, if we truly value cross-training and people having those additional skills, then we need to pay for it. Another piece is on the front end, as you're bringing people in.

What training are you providing beforehand? I wrote about "Workshops for Warriors." So that's an outfit that's focused a hundred percent on transitioning service members and providing them with skilled trades training. So rather than having someone come in off the street, without those skills, you can partner with an outfit like that to provide training before they hit the floor. 

In a lot of cases, as it is with workshops, there's no cost to the candidate. You can get grants, you can get outside support, and then, certainly should be incumbent on the people making use of those resources to help pay for it as well. But to an extent, you can have people have that opportunity to get training before they're coming in the door.

Now you have a worker who's able to contribute from the time they arrive, and then continue to offer those opportunities. You made the point of having that career path and, " how do I move up the ladder?" So you really have to have that clear correlation between, okay. If I'm doing this additional training, if I'm spending my time, on these additional programs, then how does that up to, how does that add up to moving up the ladder and bettering myself from a career stand?

Brian Sallee: Yeah. And another thing to follow up there. So the organization, you mentioned it's Workshop for Warriors, is that right?

Jim Vinoski: Yup. 

Brian Sallee: So that's developing really what we would call skilled workers. So these would be like I believe, welders maintenance, technicians, maybe machinists. Is that kind of the area where they're developing those skills? 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah. They're very much focused on the skilled trades and using that for the transitioning veterans.

Brian Sallee: Got it. Cause, cause that's where I think, we hear a lot in the media about, the skills shortage, and it's really two different problems, isn't it? We can't even just get basic labor in the door to do really, non-skilled types of roles. And then there's the other part, which is the skilled labor shortage, which is what you're talking about here.

Those are two different challenges, right? 

Jim Vinoski: They are. I think what we'll see over time is that the skilled trades challenge becomes the bigger one because we're going to automate away those jobs that don't require some level of skill. It's just, it's something that's going to have to happen because we're not going to have the people to backfill all these retiring baby boomers.

And certainly, you have to have that short-term focused on just getting the bodies you need. And then having them become part of your workforce. Temp agencies are always an answer for the short term. The challenge there is now you've got people coming in the door who aren't invested.

 And so. I'm not opposed to having temps in short term, but for me in my career, I've always insisted that they have some path to become full-time employees in fairly short order because otherwise, you don't have their true effort. But yeah, to me, the bigger focus needs to be on how are we going to develop those skills?

And, we've talked about some of those more maintenance and technical things like welding and machine maintenance and all that. But even just training upfront for how to be a contributing member in a manufacturing environment, some places will do that kind of training. 

Some of the community college programs. I've got some in this area in Michigan that will do training for people just to understand what they're walking into and they get a job in manufacturing. 

Brian Sallee: Oh, so this is like training, just to understand, "here's what a manufacturing environment is like, here's really how manufacturing works." That's interesting.

So there's that level of training is needed for folks just to understand what the industry's like. cause it's there just, hasn't been a lot of exposure to manufacturing for most of us.

Jim Vinoski:  Again, looking at the past, we had tech-savvy people who are coming in, not knowing our world and we had the time and wherewithal to then train them and get them into a job on the floor. And so part of the challenge now is being so far behind. How do you have people coming in, who are able to contribute from the get-go? And so that's where I think manufacturing again, is going to have to take it upon themselves.

Partner up with those resources externally that can help them, but to really develop those skills. For example, here in my area, there's even a burgeoning dairy training dairy processing training with even a mobile training unit that will go around and go to the different community colleges and do orientation for people on dairy training.

Universities will have things like that. I've seen universities with, whether it's, robotics or Electronics for manufacturing different programs that are very heavily focused on the production world. And the more we can partner up with them and get what we're looking for versus what they think we're looking for.

We'll be that much farther ahead. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. So the some of the changes, I hear a lot about the changes in curriculum offering new programs at the high school. I don't know about you, but when I was in high school, I took welding and it was great exposure to something that I normally wouldn't have ever done on my own.

And those are programs that have been taken out of high school, right? 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah, I had Metal Shop, Wood Shop... you don't see any of that anymore? I shouldn't say you don't. I was actually in contact with an outfit in the Chicago area that is continuing to do that in their high schools, but I think, yeah, it's getting rarer to see those at the high school level. 

Brian Sallee: Is that something you think we'll see some changes or we'll see some new programs? There's a, what is it, the Manufacturing Institute. There are some other programs out there that, are trying to develop some curriculum. Is that something you're going to see? They'll push down from some of these larger organizations that represent manufacturers? 

Jim Vinoski: I think we've got a lasting groundswell around the notion that a college degree isn't necessary for success and isn't really right for a lot of our youth. And so I do think there's going to be a fresh look at, "what are those programs we can provide?" Whether it's in the high schools, themselves, or as extension programs in partnership with other, trade schools or community colleges.

So I do think there's the potential for getting that assistance. I just think, to get us there, manufacturers are going to have to take the bull by the horns and help drive it. And I don't think that's going away. 

Brian Sallee: Yeah. It seems like the challenge with that though is just when there's not some sort of group that's organizing this, how sustainable is it for one manufacturer to, try and drive these changes?

Jim Vinoski: It's always been a challenge because as I said, even in my work with Forbes, the broad swath of manufacturing is almost inconceivable. The difference in sizes and focus areas and technologies. It's an incredibly varied industry and therefore, these kinds of central organizations, lobbying groups, whatever. 

The National  Association of Manufacturing is a good example, they do great work. But they're always getting knocked for only watching out for the large manufacturers. Now to their credit, they have instituted some committees that are focused specifically on small and medium enterprises. And so there's that piece of it, where we need to work with those established organizations and make sure that they're trying to cover as much as they can.

But I think another piece is going to be more of these local and regional partnerships. Again, I just happen to have quite a few contacts in Chicago, and I know they've got some very effective small manufacturing organizations down there that work on all of these kinds of things; machine shops and different core manufacturing supply companies that come together and partner up to, to get those things that they need. I think we need to see more of that and every different realm, whether it's food processors or the meat processors, all these different pieces of the puzzle that are gonna have unique needs that they have to get after.

And ya, one manufacturer alone is not going to make a big difference, but if we can. And have these regional partnerships and I think we'll be a lot more effective. 

Brian Sallee: Great. Well Jim this has been great to walk through some of these challenges that manufacturers are facing. I want to shift and want to ask you just a couple more questions before we wrap up here.

This is something we ask all of our guests. And the first one is what's your favorite industry or business quote? 

Jim Vinoski: Yeah. You made me think about that one. I actually like to go to the world of sports for a lot of the kind of philosophy that I worked by. And I've always been a huge fan of the 1984 Olympic hockey miracle. And so the coach of that team, Herb Brooks said, "Risk something or forever sit with your dreams." 

Brian Sallee: I like that. Yeah. Yeah. I got, and I got one more for you.

I just want to pick your brain, you know, is there, based on our conversation today, what's one piece of tactical advice you could share with our audience today? 

Jim Vinoski: The piece for the topic we're talking about is if you're a manufacturer and you're sitting back right now, waiting for someone else to solve this problem, you're already behind.

You've got to be out there, active yourself. And that's in every way we talked about, looking at those things on your own floor to both attract and retain employees. But then also looking beyond your own doors, partnering up with those other manufacturers like yourself, with those manufacturing extensions, and the community colleges and tech schools that will help you to get that steady supply of workers that you're going to need for the future.

Brian Sallee: Got it. So take action to solve the challenges on your own. Don't wait for somebody else.

Jim Vinoski: Yeah. Get outside your own head and start talking to folks outside your own walls. 

Brian Sallee: Excellent. Jim, it was great having you today. I appreciate you joining us on the podcast.

Jim Vinoski: Yeah, Brian, thank you. It was a great chat.


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Founded in 2011, Dozuki has been the leader in connected worker solutions for over a decade. We’ve helped hundreds of companies plan, implement, and scale our frontline digital transformation solution.

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