Bridging the skills gap with strong leadership

By Heather Johnson / Hartwig, Inc. | Mar 05, 2018

"People don't leave jobs, they leave bad managers."

It's a phrase everyone has heard, and the manufacturing world is no different. The real difference with manufacturing is the issue is actually even more dangerous than other industries because the skills gap is making it harder to replace a qualified operator, machinist or engineer.

The conversation about the skills gap facing manufacturing is not new. Revolutionary changes to address the issues surrounding higher education and skills training are necessary to successfully overcome it. However, in the meantime, manufacturers are left to address the issue of what to do now to attract, train, and retain talent.

Compounding the problem of a workforce shortage is the rapidly advancing technology used in manufacturing today. Continued automation, robotics, advanced programming, and even the disruption of additive manufacturing is creating an environment where manufacturers are left searching for engineers with skill sets that can evolve almost in real time with the technology.

So what can we do? Instincts might be to try to attract talent that is already in the industry by offering above-market wages, but the answer is even simpler: stronger leadership. The fact of the matter is some shops simply cannot afford to offer higher wages. Furthermore, and more importantly, if you want to retain talented workers, wages alone do not garner loyalty -- but transformational leadership does.

Transformational leaders are very deliberate in articulating their vision and mission of the company, and just as painstakingly deliberate about tying each team member's job to that vision and mission. By doing so, leaders give their team a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their work, and in an industry faced with a workforce shortage, this purpose and fulfillment is vital after taking the time to recruit and train employees. Otherwise, if wages are the only source of loyalty, after you invest in training someone, the next shop simply has to pay slightly more (but are not out the cost of the training).

Along with connecting employees to the company's mission, transformational leaders focus on their team's growth. Career growth does not have to come in the form of promotions and title raises but through investment in skills and development. The results of helping people believe they can achieve more is simple and proven: they perform beyond the expectations of their normal job requirements. Engineers who work longer hours to make sure a project succeeds, operators who think outside the box and pioneer new, better ways for production, and a team who is invested in not only their success but the success of the whole organization. Transformational leadership will drive out complacency and encourage innovative thinking at every level of the organization.

Another trait of transformational leadership is getting to know each team member on an individual level. By knowing their people personally, they will know how to uniquely capture their determination and potential to contribute to the organization's success. The key to strong and authentic leadership is knowing that the goal is not simply increased performance from the team, but instead helping the team achieve more because they feel fulfilled in their work.

There is not a switch a manager can flip and suddenly be a trusted, transformational leader instantaneously. It is a style that must be worked at, and the measurement of success is from the bottom up. There are a few things manufacturers can do:

If you are not already doing some sort of annual evaluation of your leadership, start now. Honest feedback and constructive criticism is the only way to move forward effectively. The more feedback, and the more levels of feedback, the better, so developing and implementing a 360 Feedback program custom built for your organization would be the strongest way to help develop leadership. Leaders need a baseline of their skills as much as they need to know what areas need improvement. Leadership is a skill, and manufacturers should be investing in development.

Invest in regular leadership development. Leadership development is not only done by paying for a professional consultant or coach. Manufacturers can work on internal development and help their leadership team understand their own specific leadership styles. There are various ways to implement a high quality leadership development program as long as the leadership is willing to invest their time and effort in these skills.

Start a mentorship program within your organization. The value of mentorship is seen on both sides of the relationship: mentor and mentee. While ensuring the succession of tacit knowledge from veteran operators, machinists, engineers, or other team members, another benefit is enhancing relationships throughout the team. Successful mentorship programs have an impact on the overall culture of an organization by placing a clear emphasis on the importance the manufacturer puts on the personal growth and development of its employees.

Look for ways that leadership can allow team members to take more ownership of their jobs. If employees are running all of their decisions through leadership, then management is just a bottleneck to productivity and innovation, rather than a facilitator. Allowing employees autonomy and job ownership drives motivation and satisfaction while also creating trust in the relationship between leader and worker. There are multiple studies that indicate that increasing trust in leadership leads to higher productivity, satisfaction, and effort.

People want to be connected to their company and make an impact, and strong leadership is the clearest way that manufacturers can help make that connection. The best way to do this successfully is help our people come to work every day feeling like they are contributing to more than just metrics.

Heather Johnson is project coordinator at Hartwig, Inc., and a student in Webster University's Doctorate of Management program.