by Bob Zaruta, President/CEO, NWIRC

During my first six months at the NWIRC, a top priority of mine has been to travel our 13 county regional footprint to meet with manufacturing company owners and CEOs. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about their companies, tour facilities, and meet some of their employees. We’ve discussed their key concerns, critical business issues, and strategies and goals for growth. Most of them continue to deploy cost reduction strategies like 2 Second Lean, Kaizen Events, and Six Sigma. Many want to diversify their business by identifying new markets and growing revenues from new customers.

Seemingly, all of them are facing an aging workforce dilemma and a typical scenario that looks like this: Bruce is retiring in June. He is as skilled a tooling guy as you could find. During his long career in manufacturing, the last 35 with his current employer, he has learned and perfected his craft. He has developed an impressive skill set and has accumulated a vast amount of job specific knowledge, techniques, and tips to efficiently accomplish his tasks. He is not a trainer by trade, but he has assumed this role with new hires and apprentices by using show and tell – “watch me, this is how it’s done.” He has contributed significantly to the success of the business throughout the years, and his capabilities and services have been highly valued and appreciated by all company employees. Bruce has a few co-workers who will also be retiring soon. Some are die setters or machine operators and some perform machine maintenance and repair.

There has been a great amount of attention and discussion in recent years about the shortage of skilled workers needed to fill current openings for manufacturing positions. But the story of Bruce represents the, equal or greater, threat of institutional knowledge leaving the company. Manufacturers know they need to recruit, train, and develop employees to replace those who will be exiting their workforce. However, they don’t necessarily have a handle on the best way to address the vast experience and accumulated knowledge that literally resides in the minds of long-tenured employees. They have not captured and documented the best practices and lessons learned to do a specific job over the years. And, they have not standardized the process to train other employees on the best way to do a job.

Manufacturers who employ people like Bruce, that want to increase productivity and effectively prepare the next generation of employees, need to act sooner rather than later. Proven methods exist to breakdown jobs, capture the accumulated knowledge and best techniques, and create work instructions to do jobs the right way with greater consistency. In addition to standardizing work, these proven methods enable companies to standardize on the way to train others. As a result, the onboarding process of new employees is improved; overall productivity increases; quality improves; and the work place is safer. The employees feel good about their contributions, management rests a little easier about the future workforce, and the company’s hidden assets are preserved.

NWIRC will be focusing on this common concern at an upcoming Manufacturers Growth Conference (May 17 in St Marys and May 18 in Erie). We hope you join us for the discussion and learn from an industry expert.