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How to Close the Skills Gap using Culture and Manufacturing Hiring

February 20, 2018


Millennials and the overall topic of generational differences have become common conversation topics in nearly all workplaces looking to hire. This should make sense, since job candidate pools are now largely composed of Millennials and Gen Z. So if a company has a vacancy, chances are a Millennial will fill that role. For several industries, this does not necessarily create additional difficulty in hiring, although for manufacturers and other trades, it can be more challenging.

Many workforce surveys conducted over the last 5-10 years show that skilled trades (electricians, carpenters, welders, plumbers, etc.) have been reported as the #1 most difficult job type to fill for the United States (and the rest of the world is having trouble too). Within the top 10 also resides technicians (production, operations, or maintenance) and production/machine operators. Is the Millennial-laden candidate pool and production and manufacturing skills gap a coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.

As many Millennials can attest, while they were considering career options, 4-year college was often presented as the best and most desired option. If a high school grad did not want to do that, they were encouraged to at least try a 2-year degree. Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors typically push young minds in that direction because college degrees ideally provide higher salaries, better work conditions, and more opportunities overall. The reality is that college was the correct career choice for some, but not for all. The result is an inconvenient trend where drop-outs are inadvertently reinforced and left in a tough spot: student loan debt (often considerable), little to no marketable credentials, and a lost opportunity to build on other skills. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over the last 10 years there has been a minimum of 65% of high school graduates who enroll in college each year. Let’s do some quick math: on average, 3.4 million young adults graduate from high school each year and about 2.2 million of those will enroll in college. That leaves 1.2 million who will take another path. Of the remaining 1.2 million, about 864,000 are employed full-time or are actively seeking work after high school. The jobs held by these roughly 24% of new high school grads are divided between all industries, with the majority shareholders being retail, food preparation and serving, and entry-level office jobs. In short, only a small piece of each graduating class initially went toward anything related to skilled trades or manufacturing. After years of this trend, the workforce is left with a noticeable skills gap and this is compounded current-day by low unemployment rates.

Related: What Top Companies Are Doing to Close the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Where does that leave manufacturing and other skilled trade employers? Despite all of this, there are still good (or at least trainable) candidates out there. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking at your hiring processes and company culture to ensure millennials (and all other applicants) stay interested:

  • Job Clarity – Millennials grew up in a world where the norm of constant information was established. If you cannot provide clear, concise information, then candidates are likely to move on. On top of that, if the information provided is misleading or too vague, then this is particularly jarring when the job starts. Your hiring process should be descriptive, but most importantly, realistic. If your company’s work environment is reasonably dirty, loud, or physically taxing, don’t shy away from it. Give candidates this information through good job descriptions (i.e. “You will need to wear steel-toed boots and ear protection”) or by showing them the environment during the interview. Letting candidates know this type information upfront will alleviate the first-week turnover individuals. The best way to do this is by providing Realistic Job Previews.

  • Benefits – Providing some form of affordable benefits can serve as a big motivator for applicants, especially if they are stricken with debt as many college drop-outs are. Benefits are often reserved for "proven" employees who have a track record with the company, but having something available upon employment (or very soon after) can differentiate your company from other employers. Our Guide to the Modern Manufacturing Employee provides details and suggestions on how to create an attractive work environment for the current generation.

  • Overtime – Don’t be surprised when new hires are not jumping over one another to work overtime. Millennials, and the workforce as a whole, are shifting to where a value on work-life balance can be more important than a larger paycheck. This can be viewed as laziness from the employers perspective but it may be a difference in values as opposed to an outright refusal to work overtime. This is not to say that all new employees will refuse overtime, but it is more common than in the past.

  • Work Culture – Each workplace is different, even for jobs that are repetitive in nature. If your company does something special for holidays or has company picnics, be sure candidates know this information. If your company does not, then consider implementing something that is respective to your business needs. Workplace culture is increasingly more important to job applicants, as they look for work features outside of just pay and benefits.

One important thing to remember is that regardless of how many applicants are available, and regardless of their generation, cultivating a positive applicant experience and having the right mindset will help your business across the board. That applies not only to the recruitment of skilled trades or manufacturing, but all industries. When you show the “right mindset,” the general attitude your company puts forth during all applicant interactions is consistent and constructive. If your pre-conceived notion is that millennials (or any other generation) are more difficult to work with, then it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we explored, applicant pools can be limited so every candidate touch point is an important one.

Get the detailed guide to manufacturing hiring, managing, and working with the next generation of employees.

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Brett Gatesman Brett Gatesman is a Consultant in the Pittsburgh office for PSI. He provides expertise for clients as they implement new hiring processes and assessments, as well as best practices on the various aspects of pre-employment screening. He also facilitates the analysis/reporting of personnel data as part of test validations and client-specific scenarios.