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Seven Secrets Manufacturers Can Use to Get (and Keep) Good Employees

Wed October 28, 2020 - National Edition

Have you ever wondered why it is that some companies always get the good employees? Is it because they employ top-notch recruiting services? Do they use five-star staffing agencies? Do they excel at leveraging online tools? Do they have privileged information that helps with their employment efforts?

According to Matt Kirchner, president at ATS Lab Midwest, some companies always get the good employees because they know the proven secrets to accomplish this feat.

The company is a leading distributor of world-class manufacturing curriculum, eLearning and training equipment. Previously, Kirchner served as a chief executive officer and chief operating officer of three American manufacturing companies in his 25 years in the industry.

From his experience, he said there is "great value and benefit from creating partnerships with education organizations to transform the talent pool. There are seven secrets world-class companies use to do this."

Kirchner shared those secrets as a featured speaker in the recent virtual Workforce Solutions Summit hosted by AEM. The three-day event delivered education and ideas on workforce solutions. His presentation was entitled: Why Do Other Companies Always Get the Good Employees?

Secret Number 1: Talk Help, Not Money

There is a disconnect between industry and educators, observed Kirchner. People on the employment and industrial side want new employees coming from high schools and technical schools. Educators want money from industry and employers to fund and grow their programs.

"If the conversation starts with industry asking for people and educators asking for money, it goes absolutely nowhere," he said. "The solution is to talk about how each can help one another. What do educators really need to provide a great workforce? What does industry really need in their people? When you accomplish this, amazing things can happen."

Secret Number 2: Use a Translator. PLCs Are Not PLCs

According to Kirchner, PLCs (programmable logic controllers) are "the computer of manufacturing that totally revolutionized manufacturing. You would think that everyone would know about PLCs."

That is not the case, as he learned early on in his time at ATS Lab Midwest.

"A PLC is not the same thing to industry as it is to educators, which is a professional learning community. The truth is the language of industry and the language of education are two different languages."

By way of example, he said an industry person would say "educational institutes," whereas an educator would say "institutions of higher education."

Right out of the block, educators and industrial employers need to admit to each other that they do not speak the same language and, in many ways, they have different cultures, stressed Kirchner. They also need to understand that each works at different paces — sometimes faster or slower — and that what is important in industry might not be important in education, and vice versa.

"By doing this, discussions become a lot more fruitful," added Kirchner.

Secret Number 3: Check the Agenda at the Door

Kirchner emphasized the importance of putting aside whatever preconceived notions industry professionals and educators have about one another and "starting out fresh. All parties need to be on the same page for industry and educators to partner to secure the American Dream for the next generation of STEM and manufacturing talent."

This, he noted, is ATS Lab Midwest's mission.

"There is a huge opportunity to do this by checking the agenda at the door, forgetting those preconceived notions, not complaining about what you think educators are or are not doing. Figure out where industry and educators can work together and collaborate."

Secret Number 4: Expect Interest Not Experts

Industry must realize that it is not going to find employees that do things their way, nor are new employees going to be as good as employees who have been doing their job for a while, said Kirchner.

"Think about your career pathway. How much did you know about your first job? If you are like me, the answer is probably 25 percent of what you would need to know to ultimately be successful. The rest I learned from employer-provided training, mentors, making mistakes and experience."

When industry hires a skilled employee with a degree from a technical school, it cannot expect them to perform like someone who has been with a company for years, he said. You are not going to hire an expert. You are hiring someone with a head start over somebody you would hire off the street.

"Have the patience to work with those people. Build on the basic skills that they learned while they were in school and teach them the things they need to do and know to be successful in your organization."

Secret Number 5: You Don't Just Need Someone to Show Up

In manufacturing, there are four types of people that can be hired, explained Kirschner. People that have both soft and hard skills, have soft skills and no hard skills, have hard skills and no soft skills, and have no soft and no hard skills.

Soft skills are personality traits. Hard skills are related to specific technical knowledge and training.

Industry wants people with both soft and hard skills. So why doesn't it just find these people? Because there are not a lot of people in the workforce that have both soft and hard skills that are looking for jobs.

The mistake most industrial employers make, he pointed out, is that because it can't find people both soft and hard skills, it settles for people with soft skills and no hard skills who will come to work, stay off drugs and take some direction. Industry says to educators: give me someone like that and I will teach them the hard skills.

"When you say this, you are telling educators that you do not want people that understand how to operate equipment, so educators should not be investing in the future of technical education. That creates one of the biggest problems in terms of industry finding good employees," he said.

Secret Number 6: Who Gets the Right People Isn't An Accident

There are so many opportunities to get young people excited about careers in advanced manufacturing, said Kirschner. A key one is to partner with local community colleges and technical schools and become totally engaged with them.

He advises getting to know the president, dean, program chair or CEO of local community colleges or technical schools. Visit their institutions and have them visit your facilities. Serve on advisory boards. Attend their functions, such as golf outings, banquets, special events and new program launches. Support or endow a student scholarship.

"These are the things that make all the difference," stressed Kirschner. "If industry is not doing these things, it is missing a huge opportunity to create a brand for your company within those institutions, cement your relationships with them, let students know your company exits when they are graduating and are looking for their first job and continue to grow your talent pool."

Secret Number 7: Influence Policy

SkillsUSA and the Manufacturing Institute, a few years ago, interviewed 23,000 young people that had gone through high school and college and were entering their first career. They were asked what influenced your career pathway.

Far and away, the No. 1 influencer was their own interests and experiences when in middle and high schools, Kirschner said. Other influencers were:

  • Fathers
  • Mothers
  • Teachers
  • Coaches

"For the most part, high school tech ed programs and technical schools have not kept up, because careers in manufacturing are so much different than they were just 20 years ago. They are way more data driven, technical, automated and more exciting. But most young people have no idea."

Industry needs to be showing students the opportunities that exist on the hard skills side, he emphasized. Students need to be seeing the types of "cool technology," like mechatronics, controls, robotics and IoT (the concept of connected machines in an industrial setting, designed to improve asset management decision-making, operational visibility and control) while in middle and high school.

If industry is not doing this, it is "missing the opportunity to inspire them toward careers in advanced manufacturing. We have to talk to our educators about injecting advanced manufacturing technology into the high schools and careers centers so students can see that these careers can be as exciting as any other career choice."

Back to the U.S.

"The coronavirus has shown how at risk our supply chains can be when we have a global supply chain, which we will always have," observed Kirchner. "People are starting to understand the risk of not having manufacturing near the point of use."

There is already public policy being devised to figure out how we can continue to bring manufacturing back to the United States, he said. "Manufacturing is coming back, but it is not coming back the way that it left. It is coming back way more automated and way more data driven.

"The challenge is to make sure we are giving our young people the skills, aptitudes and competencies that they need in order to be successful in the great jobs that industry provides."

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