The numbers are huge—2.1 million jobs going unfilled in U.S. manufacturing through 2030. But to a struggling employer, the vast numbers boil down to the grind of filling those openings, one or two or five at a time.
To fill the gaps, manufacturers are seeking employees from nontraditional or largely untapped fields. Veterans, women, re-entrants, and refugees constitute a rich supply of motivated, reliable workers. Through strategic planning, targeted outreach, collaboration, and a few adaptations, manufacturers can build workforce pipelines that do good for society, and for the bottom line, the experts agree.
Nontraditional hiring falls under the diversity and inclusion (D&I) umbrella, but D&I differs according to the unique demographics of each community, says David McKnight, vice president of business relations and partnerships for The Manufacturing Institute (MI) based in Washington, D.C. Beyond gender, race, and ethnicity, diversity can also include age, ability, religion, nationality, and socioeconomic circumstances.
The common thread in tapping that potential, whether in urban or rural settings, is that people “will tend to work and stay in a place where they feel welcome,” McKnight says. Employee resource groups, or ERGs, offer one tool for building a welcoming workplace through the creation of internal networks, internship opportunities, and a seat at the table for non-traditional employees.
An initiative called MI’s Creators Wanted addresses an ambitious goal of filling 600,000 manufacturing jobs by 2025, largely by changing outdated misperceptions about manufacturing and closing the skills gap, McKnight says.
The initiative informs potential hires and their family members that manufacturing offers career pathways, with reskilling and upskilling opportunities offered by employers willing to invest in their futures. If youthful workers of all types—in traditional and nontraditional communities—can be shown that the smartphone in their hands can also control a robot making a washing machine, McKnight says, “that gets them excited. We have to do a better job as an industry of being an evangelist.”
Honing that message for nontraditional audiences requires engaging each in different ways, he adds. Working with local chambers of commerce and workforce organizations, including those tailored for specific groups, such as women and immigrants, “are a key step in understanding and getting in contact with your local populations.”
Manufacturers are finding talent to fill the gaps among veterans, women, re-entrants, and refugees. Here is a closer look at each approach.
Veterans themselves might not understand how their skills align with the civilian sector, and they struggle to find “that next mission that will provide the fulfillment and sense of community that many attribute to their time in uniform,” McKnight says. “Any employer will tell you that the veteran population is a great population to hire from. They have inherent leadership skills. They work as a team. They can show up on time. This makes this population ideal for any career, but particularly manufacturing.”
In a competitive hiring climate where veterans, like all other workers, have more options of industries to choose from when job seeking, manufacturing must double down on the message of career pathways and skill building. MI’s program called Heroes MAKE America targets the 200,000 people transitioning from the Armed Forces every year, plus veterans and military spouses. In partnership with technical and community colleges, Heroes MAKE America integrates certification and career readiness training. Facility tours, events, and the Heroes Connect virtual platform link Heroes participants and alumni with employers eager to hire.
Heroes also focuses on keeping veterans on the job with transition assistance, mentors, and other best practices to help this population overcome the challenges that could knock them out of the workplace.
Workplace flexibility and accommodation of childcare needs, especially in the wake of COVID, is a crucial factor for the hiring and retention of women.
“It’s no surprise to anyone that women are usually the caregivers, and if your school calls on a Monday night and says, ‘We’re closing on Tuesday,’ they’re usually the ones who stay home,” McKnight says.
Small changes can make a big difference. McKnight cites the instantaneous impact when a rural manufacturer aligned its work schedule with the local school bus schedule. Workplace flexibility, he says, is “a critical part of any manufacturing job, but particularly for women.”
MI’s STEP Women’s Initiative—for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production—celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2022. The program was created to address a disparity: Women make up approximately half of the overall U.S. workforce, but less than one-third of the manufacturing sector. Delving into the issue with consulting firm Deloitte, MI learned that women are looking for more role models, interesting and challenging work, and better work-life balance.
STEP helps women develop those pathways and, crucially, link with mentors. “It brings women together,” McKnight says. “How do we create networks within manufacturing so that women can ask questions and thrive?”
Recognition also motivates women, which led to the annual STEP Ahead Awards. STEP received more than 1,000 candidates for the 2020 award program, and 100 honorees and 30 emerging leaders were recognized, “so it’s quite an honor,” McKnight says. “And the stories of these women are absolutely incredible. Not only is it a great way to recognize the talent in a company, but when other women can read these stories and relate to them, it promotes the entire industry.”
Second Chance Programs
One in four people in the U.S. has a criminal record. Historically, criminal convictions and incarceration blocked the path to good jobs, but the second-chance talent pipeline has now been shown to be more loyal and produce less turnover, “which in the end, gets you a better employee, but also costs the employer less,” McKnight says.
MI’s new second-chance initiative works with manufacturers to gather best practices and pilot-test effective training. The initiative also works with community organizations to explore wraparound resources such as childcare, social services, and transportation to eliminate barriers facing the formerly incarcerated or those with limited exposure to the workforce.
“How do we open the doors for them to succeed?” McKnight asks rhetorically. “That’s not just getting the job. It’s also about retention, which requires internal supports and understanding of all the challenges they are facing.”
The key to success in hiring reentrants is personalization and collaboration, says Colin Slaven, founder of Second Chance Jobs. From its origins in Aiken, South Carolina, Second Chance Jobs is now operating throughout the state and parts of Georgia and Florida. The nonprofit trains and matches re-entrants and others—veterans, displaced, homeless—with apprenticeships and jobs in manufacturing, building trades, and construction.
The result is a 92% retention rate. “We don’t look at each person as a number,” Slaven says. “We get to the fundamentals. What do you want to do every day when you get up? Forget about the money. The money is great in any trade, but you need to enjoy what you do on a daily basis. Happiness is key, and are you mentally and physically capable to work in the building, construction, and manufacturing industries?”
Employers love their Second Chance Jobs graduates “because they know what they want,” Slaven adds.
“At the end of the day, manufacturers are all about efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. If you have people in the company who aren’t motivated and don’t want to increase their opportunities within the company, bring in those who do.”
Collaboration among training entities, employers, and state and federal government builds a scaffold for success, Slaven says. As Second Chance Jobs continues filling the gaps between displacement and employment, it is partnering with a South Carolina reentry task force to put its programs in all 21 state prisons, allowing inmates to be released with certifications in high- demand fields.
“It’s life-changing for the individuals, but it’s also corporate-changing for the bottom line if you do it right—together,” he says. “There are resources and solutions out there and logistical plans you can put in place that will make a difference.”
The U.S. refugee labor pool constitutes about 2 million people—refugees themselves and their children who might have grown up without the social connections needed to start careers, says Chris Chancey, founder and CEO of Amplio Recruiting, a staffing company that matches refugees with jobs in manufacturing and industry.
About 70% of refugees in the U.S. are aged 25 to 65. Of those, about 80% will take their first jobs in blue-collar environments, Chancey says. Many of the Afghan refugees now coming to American shores are Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders who worked with the U.S. military. They are fluent in English, highly disciplined and motivated, and ready to make immediate contributions to their companies.
The next wave will not be fluent in English, he adds, but they will be of working age and will take blue-collar work. Chancey sees an opportunity to work with the first wave and help them “create a bridge for those who will come behind them. If a company has that mindset and perspective, there’s a huge opportunity for them to decrease the labor gap.”
Refugees want to contribute, bring value to an employer, and “live out their own version of the American dream,” Chancey says. Where geographic barriers exist, Amplio can assist employers by helping refugees move for job opportunities. Chancey has found, too, that about half of the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA) members are in areas that Amplio can support.
Refugees have been thoroughly vetted before entering the U.S. and have their work authorizations. Employers who work with refugee staffing specialists can take the first step toward creating workforce pipelines, Chancey notes. That’s why the entry of Afghan SIV holders creates “a huge opportunity” for companies to state their support for hiring those who have served the U.S.
“Even in that one simple statement, those individuals will know this is a place that respects the role they played,” Chancey says.
Companies should also look to address the social needs of nontraditional workers. These laborers may need help with housing and transportation, requiring that employers change their mindsets and forge partnerships with community service providers, McKnight notes.
The results propel strategic plans by filling job openings and improving retention and productivity. They also offer a bonus benefit by making companies more attractive to the labor pool’s millennials and Gen Z-ers, who want to make a difference with employers that have Corporate Social Responsibility policies.
Committing to hiring marginalized groups as a strategy for filling labor gaps requires an investment, but not necessarily in money, Chancey says. Simple changes in practices and policies might include eliminating college degree requirements, offering buddy programs and job shadowing, and doubling typical onboarding time to assure that workers understand expectations.
Refugees especially see benefits as “anything that contributes to stability.” A business card, company uniform, or actual desk and chair communicates that the employee has a place in the company. And a predictable paycheck instead of productivity-based pay, at least in the first weeks, will assure refugees that their weekly earnings will pay the bills they need to survive.
“If you’re willing to make slight adjustments, you will have a pipeline of talent, because they will be committed to you over your competitors,” Chancey says.
Manufacturers can amplify their nontraditional hiring efforts by engaging with MI through roundtables, partnerships, and the STEP, second-chance, Heroes MAKE America, and Creators Wanted initiatives, McKnight says.
“Work has the power to transform lives,” he adds. “It provides income. It provides health care. It provides all of the basic services a person needs to survive—water, food, shelter. It’s a noble cause. Manufacturing has so many amazing opportunities at so many different levels. You can be a production employee, or you can have a Ph.D. There is some role for you in manufacturing.”
M. Diane McCormick is a freelance writer and editor based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.