Fueling the Force

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by Noelle Stapinsky

Cultivating and managing a healthy workforce can be a key differentiator in today’s competitive landscape


The past couple of years have been quite positive for job shops in Canada. They’re investing, diversifying and constantly adapting to the changing market to bring work in the door and remain competitive. Of course, as technology changes and a new generation of workers enter the talent pool, these resilient businesses may find huge benefits in re-evaluating and redesigning their recruiting and employee retention strategies. 

It’s no secret that one of the biggest challenges job shops face today is finding and retaining skilled workers. In fact, according to the SME, the number one thing that’s plaguing manufacturing in both Canada and the U.S. is finding the right talent. 

“Manufacturing facilities and job shops are complex environments with many different technologies and processes that can change, which can effect people’s confidence on the floor. And these companies typically don’t have large human resource departments or training programs,” says Jeannine Kunz, vice-president of Tooling U-SME, the SME’s training and development division that focuses on the development of people to create a competitive environment for manufacturers. 

Tooling U-SME works with thousands of employers in the U.S. and Canada, as well as high schools and trade schools, to provide curriculums manufacturers need new employees to know when entering the workforce.

“One of the biggest issues we see is the aging workforce. Many manufacturers are struggling with maintaining or capturing the tribal knowledge that these people developed over the years to fine tune their craft. And when those people leave, that’s a significant loss of knowledge,” says Kunz. “The second part of that is how will you train the new person coming in?”

Having a structured onboarding program is critical. “The younger generation is expecting a strong onboarding experience,” says Kunz. “A lot of the complaints you hear from employees are that they don’t see where they can go with a company. What we’re helping companies do is outline what it takes to go from one job to the next, which isn’t always clear. For example, if an employee is a machine operator and wants to become a programmer, what skills do they need to get there?”

While industry 4.0 can be difficult to adopt from a cost standpoint, investing in new technology and automation is creating more attractive jobs, especially for the younger generation. Kunz advises companies to address the overall organizational vision—what it stands for; what it manufactures; and how that component or part contributes to the bigger picture. The next generation of workers wants to grow and see that a company wants them to grow. “If a company has a good learning culture, there’s a direct correlation to employee retention.” 

Live off the floor
Kitchener, Ont.-based Answer Precision Tool Inc. has been in a constant state of growth since it opened its doors in 1996. Specializing in inspection and automation equipment and secondary equipment for the soft touch industry for tier one suppliers in the automotive sector and oil and gas industry, this manufacturer is now 80-employees strong and in the process of growing into a bigger facility. 

Owner Dave Henning says “There’s a lot less work out there to be had, so you have to work harder to get it. From an automotive side, with the electric vehicles coming along, there are fewer parts to be made. Also, we’re starting to notice more and more competition from China. We knew that was inevitable, but that it was going to take longer because our lead times tend to be shorter, making it more difficult for someone overseas to compete. But we are now seeing more and more competition with certain companies.”

To stay competitive and maintain growth, Henning and his team are looking at investing in new equipment, different technologies, and changing internal processes for more efficiency. “Your team or the people doing the work are very valuable assets and they have a lot of great ideas. When you sit down and talk to them about ways of doing things, you’d be surprised by what could come out of those meetings.”

Henning admits that the workforce issue is a tough one. “You have to keep people challenged,” he says. “Your onboarding process has to be robust so that when you’re bringing someone on, they feel like part of the team and they feel successful and trained properly from the beginning. That first three to six months is really what’s going to make or break them within your company. If they’re not trained properly it’s hard to feel successful. And from recruitment to training, it’s costly to bring someone new on. You want to make sure you’re getting the right person and treat them well.” 

To diversify, the Answer Precision team is currently looking at their key competencies, what other industries they can apply those to, and what else they can offer existing customers. “Sometimes your current customers may think you only have one line, but you might have others that they’re not aware of. It sounds like common sense, but when the industry is busy, you’re busy taking orders rather than selling,” says Henning. “You also need to keep in mind that when you’re developing new processes and getting into new markets, if we wanted to go out and hire 20 tool makers tomorrow, that might be a two year process.” 

Getting noticed
In an attempt to attract the next generation workforce, manufacturers are engaging the community they’re operating in. “We’re seeing more manufacturers opening their plants to kids, connecting with school boards, and some are donating equipment or making financial donations,” says Kunz. 

The Canadian Tooling and Machining Association (CTMA) is working with its member companies to find ways to support existing technical programs in high schools and promote career opportunities to students, parents and guidance counsellors. 

Recently, Kitchener, Ont.-based XL Tool Inc. donated a Haas CNC lathe to St. Benedict High School in Cambridge, Ont. This piece of equipment will be incorporated into the school’s mechanical manufacturing technology curriculum to give students in grades nine to 12 hands-on CNC programming and setup experience. 

“Donations of modern equipment to secondary schools enables students to learn up-to-date machining processes, which will serve them well upon graduation. Donations like this CNC lathe are an important step in this process,” says Robert Cattle, executive director of the CTMA. 

The CTMA also offers a program called the Education Task Force, which is comprised of industry partners, suppliers, teachers and school board officials working together to improve technical courses currently being taught in schools. 

“The current apprenticeship system has a few hurdles, one being that an apprentice must find a company to sponsor them. This is often hard for young people to do, especially finding a job in the machine, tool, die, mould and automation industries, while having no experience,” says Cattle. “We find that if some skills are taught in high school, graduates can start their careers, start getting paid and start their apprenticeship.”

By developing a strong learning plan and talent strategy around employees, not only will it become a competitive differentiator, but it’s also a strategic initiative for becoming more productive and profitable. In a world where competition is tight and the talent pool even tighter, attracting, retaining and growing a specialized workforce might be the solution job shops really need. SMT

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