Small Business Center

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May the workforce be with you

Manufacturers are facing a variety of staffing challenges, and responding to the need to educate the public as well as potential employees about the benefits of a hands-on career.

It’s easy enough to understand that a lack of jobs can wreak havoc on economies, from local to global scales. What can be more complex is grasping how a plethora of opportunities in the manufacturing sector can also be something of an economic hindrance.

According to a 2015 report of The Manufacturing Institute, the United States alone will need to fill nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs over the next decade, of which 2 million could go unfilled. Two critical factors enter into the lopsided equation: (1) “loss of embedded knowledge due to movement of experienced workers”; and (2) “a negative image of the manufacturing industry among younger generations.”

“With retirements, we are going to lose a tremendous amount of skill in the next five to 10 years,” Chapman continues. “Our biggest challenge is the transfer of knowledge.”

Even the smallest of companies can’t escape workforce gaps.

“Our staff of five, which includes my business partner and myself, range from 59 to 16 years of age,” says Owain Jones, co-owner of Hawkes Bay Trim and Canvas in Hastings, New Zealand. “We have had trouble finding suitable staff in the past and are lucky for those we have today. There is a shortage of tradesmen, let alone good ones, that are seeking a change in their work situation. This has left us putting in long hours to keep up with demand at times.”

It’s not as if the company hasn’t made a concerted effort.

“We have a program overseen by MITO,” Jones says, referring to the training organization serving New Zealand’s industrial textiles, transport and extractive industries. “This is where I and my business partner got our skills. I feel it is a huge part of ensuring that our trade continues to grow and does so in a way that keeps the same high standards that we were taught.”


Jones understands how difficult it can be to strike a balance between embedded knowledge and fresh talent. “My business partner and I are in our 30s,” he says. “It has been daunting for us trying to find someone willing to work under a couple of younger guys. A lot of older tradesmen tend to be stuck in their ways. Hiring someone who is not willing to accept guidance or instruction on the way we want things done is not a good option.”

Australia’s Nolan Group—with almost 100 employees in six locations—deals with multiple workforce matters, including compliance with employment legislation.

“In the financial year 2015–16, we spent approximately$25,000onlegalandadvisory costs for employee-related matters,” says Chris Nolan, managing director of the Alexandria-based textiles distributor.

Among the staffing obstacles is what Nolan calls “relative remuneration.” “About half of the positions offered in our business are semi-skilled. There are industries that offer significantly better pay for these roles than what is common in the fabrics sector,” he explains. “A typical salary offered by us would be $60,000 (approximately $45,000 USD). But up to three times that would be offered by the mining sector at the height of the boom two years ago. Even now, at least double that is offered in the construction sector, which is experiencing strong growth.”

Dee Duncan, president and CEO of fabric distributor Keyston Bros. in Roswell, Ga., says that he continues to hear about two workforce concerns from those in the fabrics supply chain: “First, there is an issue with finding people who can sew. Second, the industry needs an influx of young professionals. There are a bunch of us that have been in this business for years, and having some fresh talent that can bring skills and technology would be a blessing.”

But respondents in a series of public perceptionsurveys(2009–2015) conducted by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte indicated a low opinion of manufacturing as a career choice.

“We have to change the public perception of our industry by better defining and projecting its proper image to the person in the street,” Nolan says. “Each company has to do this in its own right, and collectively through associations such as IFAI and its divisions. What our industry does is innovative, interesting and vital to the community. We have to use social media to systematically promote this message to the world at large.”

“The trade is not a very well-known one, and this probably needs to be addressed at a school level,” Jones says. “I’m sure, as time goes on and we continue trying to make contact with teachers in the textile education system, there will be a huge growth in young people taking an interest in what the many highly skilled people in our industry do and how we do it.

“We have looked for part timers in the shape of retirees, but haven’t had much luck with finding good ones,” he adds. “Many are quite happy working for themselves in the shed or, sadly, are no longer able to produce the quality and quantity of work we require.”


“I think a lot of schools are not presenting a path outside of a four-year degree,” Chapman says. “You can get technical training and make a very nice living without college debt. There are good careers in manufacturing, but I don’t think the average junior high or high school student is being told about those opportunities.”

Recruitment is another part of Inman Mills workforce strategy. As part of its efforts to get young people interested in working for the company, Inman Mills attends junior high and high school career fairs, where representatives hand out postcards reading “Your Future | Your Career” on the front and showing examples of company products with the words “Opportunity,” “Loyalty,” and “Pride” on the back. Photos: Inman Mills.
As part of its efforts to get young people interested in working for the company, Inman Mills attends junior high and high school career fairs, where representatives hand out postcards reading “Your Future | Your Career” on the front and showing examples of company products with the words “Opportunity,” “Loyalty,” and “Pride” on the back. Photo: Inman Mills.

Inman Mills takes the proactive approach of inviting guidance counselors, principals and teachers to visit. “We feed them lunch and give a presentation on our company and then do plant tours,” Chapman says. “We explain what someone coming into our operation can expect to do and to earn, and what their career progression can be.”

Through the process of identifying students who may not be interested in pursuing four-year degrees, Inman has developed an after-school apprenticeship program that has resulted in full-time hires upon students’ graduation.

Hawkes Bay Trim and Canvas has found success with apprentices from a boys’ high school and recently hired one full-time after a nine-month period during which the student worked at the company a couple of days a week.

“It was a fabulous arrangement,” Jones says. “We got a student looking for a career after school and trained him for nine months with no cost but our time. He had no idea what this trade had to offer, and was initially looking for a placement in joinery. It shows what potential our trade has when people are exposed to it.”

For the last three years, Keyston Bros. has been training paid interns through the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business Supply Management at Auburn University, and has hired all of them full-time upon graduation. Duncan says internships help students apply the knowledge they gain in school.

“Matt loves spreadsheets, and we taught him more about Excel,” Duncan says, by way of example. “He loves the purchasing aspect, but is using his knowledge to really dig into strategies of inventory. Zach loves to understand the systems flow of the warehouse and how to get merchandise to the customer in an efficient manner.”

“We have two approaches to recruitment,” Nolan says. “The first is to attempt to attract young, intelligent and enthusiastic people by offering to assist in their further education, such as by allowing time off to attend classes and/or by paying tuition fees in part or in full. We rotate them quickly through warehousing and customer service and expose them early to in-house management training. In this way, they have an opportunity to gain practical experience and a sound knowledge of how a business operates. They also get a clear idea of their opportunities for future progression.

“The second is to seek out people who are not necessarily as aspirant but are seeking stable employment. We encourage their ongoing loyalty by ensuring we have a cheerful and welcoming working environment.”


As necessary, helpful and rewarding as it is, the mere act of providing guidance and instruction presents its own predicaments.

“It is a massive task simply to keep training curricula and manuals up to date,” Nolan says. “Furthermore, it’s inefficient to put one person through a formal induction process. And it is costly to bring people together from around the country to attend a training session. We are exploring joint training opportunities with our customers and suppliers, as many of the needs of our respective businesses and employees are common.”

“It is crucial for our business that we continue to up-skill ourselves and all our staff,” Jones says. “There are always new challenges coming in the door, and getting different people’s perspectives can be a great way to learn together.”

“Millennials love to work in teams. Understanding what makes them different helps you better manage them,” Duncan says. “We have been more deliberate in communicating with and involving them. The payoff is the enthusiasm, creativity and freshness they bring to a project. We are looking to the next generation to help solve problems today.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a writer and magazine editor based in San Diego, Calif. For contact information on the sources used in this article, turn to page 74.