Rethinking Workforce Strategies

New Approaches Might Attract—and Keep—Talent, Experts Suggest

Rethinking Workforce Strategies

For students and parents in Clemson, South Carolina, it is no secret that welding offers a path to steady employment.

“It’s amazing to me,” says Chip Tonkin, chair of the graphic communications department at Clemson University. “I didn’t seek this information out. I didn’t go looking for welding. But everybody in this community knows that if you have a child struggling to find a job, have them get a certificate in welding and they can make a living.” 

Flexible packaging? 

Not so much. 

“If I went to a PTA meeting, that wouldn’t be a topic of conversation,” says Tonkin, whose Clemson students go on to work for companies that print on flexible packages. 

The flexible packaging sector is in the same bind as other industries when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. But if it wants to solve its workforce challenges, leaders will need to take a more proactive approach, Tonkin argues. 

The industry tends to blame young people for not seeing the available opportunities, he contends. The opportunities exist, he notes. “But that’s not an effective means of dealing with the problem. And it’s also disingenuous. Some other industries seem to be doing OK,” Tonkin says. 

Electric utilities, for example, have made strides in attracting line workers. Companies have partnered with community colleges and other educators to design training programs, recruit students, educate them, and guarantee that they move into well-paying jobs after graduation. 

It would be a challenge to ramp up similar programs for press operators and other trades involved in flexible packaging, Tonkin says. But, he adds, “we’ve got to take this seriously, and we’ve got to treat it much like any other critical problem you face in this industry.” 

Over the years, the flexible packaging industry, especially through the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) and its member companies, has worked to promote connections between trade schools and manufacturers. But the competition for skilled trade workers is only getting more intense as U.S. companies continue to look for ways to bring production back to the states, observers say. 

Once flexible packaging companies forge connections with new recruits, however, they can stand out by showing the numerous opportunities and varied career paths available in the industry, Tonkin suggests.

How We Got Here

The confluence of several factors is creating workforce challenges in flexible packaging and manufacturing overall. One of the most often cited is the aging of the blue-collar workforce. Baby boomers are approaching retirement age, and manufacturers are struggling to replace them and their skills.

Manufacturers also had less need to hire over the past several decades as they reaped the rewards of more efficient processes, which have allowed companies to do more with less, Tonkin says. “Over the past 20 years, we have had the ability to really lean out our production workflow.”

But the landscape is shifting. Manufacturing has been booming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study unveiled earlier this year by consulting firm Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers’ workforce development and education affiliate.

After a trend toward outsourcing, companies are bringing production back to the U.S. to strengthen their supply chains, which faltered during and after the pandemic, the study found. Manufacturers also are benefiting from an influx of federal dollars for defense and infrastructure.

Manufacturing overall now employs more people—nearly 13 million—than it did before the pandemic, according to the study. And there are more manufacturers. Their ranks grew by 11% between the first quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2023. Spending on construction of new factories, meanwhile, has nearly tripled since June 2020, reaching a record high of $225 billion in January 2024.

Job creation is also expected to soar. The study estimates that manufacturers will create 3.8 million jobs between 2024 and 2033. However, absent effective solutions to the skills gap, companies could have trouble filling half of them. Manufacturers already are facing a shortage of applicants, according to the study.

“We have to be open to different ideas.”

Chip Tonkin, chair of the graphic communications department at Clemson University 

Flexible packaging companies are among the sectors hungry for talent, Tonkin says. “If your business is shrinking—and some of the print business is shrinking—you don’t need new people this minute. But flexible packaging is a growth market. You need all you can get,” he adds.

The Deloitte study notes several steps that manufacturers are taking to get a leg up. They include adopting a so-called “customer focus” to their workforce to better gauge workers’ needs and to design programs to foster retention. Employers also are engaging in partnerships to build regional pipelines for talent.

Some of those partnerships are backed by the weight of the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, has been collaborating with manufacturers and trade groups to attract people to jobs up and down the supply chain for submarines. The campaign includes ads during the Super Bowl and sponsorship of a NASCAR racing team.

“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Tom Palisin, executive director of The Manufacturers’ Association. Based in York, Pennsylvania, the regional trade group landed a $4.9 million federal grant in 2023 to help the U.S. Navy increase submarine production by attracting more workers to firms in the shipbuilding supply chain.

Stigma Erodes

Manufacturers have been working to combat the perception that factory work is dirty, dusty, and boring. Their efforts are beginning to bear fruit. More young people are forgoing college and pursuing careers in skilled trades, according to an April 2024 article in The Wall Street Journal, which dubbed Generation Z the “toolbelt generation.” Gen Z comprises people born between 1997 and 2011, according to research firm Gallup.

“The Gen Z cohort of students has a more positive outlook and would consider manufacturing careers and trades more so than the prior generation,” Palisin says.

But unlike previous generations that took up the trades, younger workers today are less likely to spend decades with a single company or industry. And after seeing older workers laid off during the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, they have less faith that hard work alone will pay off, Tonkin says.

To attract and retain younger workers, companies have to clearly lay out the avenues for advancement and provide frequent feedback. “In general, they want a more structured path,” Tonkin says.

Successful companies undertake a kind of “rebranding,” he says. “Historically, you could say, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring you on as an estimator or a quality manager, and then trust us, we’ll move you around,’” Tonkin says.

His students, though, are attracted to companies that offer a defined program for moving from area to area and then arriving at the best job fit. The programs are often labeled as leadership or associate training. “That resonates with them,” Tonkin says.

Such programs are a way for manufacturers to expose new recruits to the shop floor, he adds. While young people may be leery of factory work, they are OK with a short stint at it, especially if they see it as a way station to another destination.

But they may end up loving the process of making things, Tonkin says. “If I catch up with former students after two years, a lot of them are still doing it,” he adds.

Younger workers also put more emphasis on a company’s mission and culture, he says. They prefer a good work-life balance, for example. “We can complain about it, but that’s the reality,” Tonkin says.

Shift in Shift Work

Offering work-life balance can be a challenge for flexible packaging companies and other manufacturers accustomed to rigid shift work. But solutions are emerging.

They include a more flexible approach to scheduling such as the approach facilitated by Gig and Take, a startup founded by Rahil Siddiqui, a former human resources executive with electronics manufacturer TE Connectivity.

Based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Gig and Take has developed software through which manufacturers essentially allow a portion of their workforce to pick when they want to work.

Clients do the hiring, given that they are often looking for particular skill sets, Siddiqui says. Then, front-line managers use Gig and Take’s software to expedite scheduling. Users include snack food giant Utz Brands and building supplies manufacturer Carlisle Construction Materials.

Clients are unlikely to put their entire workforce on a flexible schedule, Siddiqui says. They typically start with a limited number and generally see Gig and Take as a way to top off chronic, day-to-day labor shortages.

The approach accommodates the need that jobseekers have for flexibility, providing a solution to address the labor crisis plaguing the industry. It also allows manufacturers to attract a broader pool of applicants. 

Clients advertising flexible roles often see up to a tenfold increase in job applicants, Siddiqui says. “Historically, people who cannot give eight hours a day, five days a week on a very rigid schedule have been locked out of employment in these traditional industries. Once you take that off the table, the floodgates open,” he adds.

To ensure the approach is effective, companies spend time educating their managers and existing workforce, Siddiqui says. Workers may question why some of their new colleagues are not required to work 40-hour weeks. Their skepticism dissolves, however, as they begin to see the advantages. When a company has a pool of flexible workers, for example, it is easier for managers to approve vacation time for seasoned workers, who might otherwise struggle to use up their multiple weeks of paid leave.

“Where our clients have seen the most success is when senior leadership has embraced a new approach to their overall labor strategy,” Siddiqui says. “This is an additional tool in your toolkit to prevent those ‘oh, snap’ moments that tend to happen all the time in the supply chain.”

The approach resonated with Tonkin, given the potential to expand the pool of available workers. “That’s what we’ve got to do at this point,” he says. “We have to be open to different ideas.” 

Joel Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in York, Pennsylvania.