Training Camp: Help Employees Develop Skills for the Factory Floor

Nearly a half million manufacturing jobs sit unfilled in the United States, partly the result of a robust economy and unemployment levels at or near record levels across the 50 states.

The National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., projects 2.4 million manufacturing posts will go unfilled in the coming decade, and many of those openings will be caused by something else — the skills gap.

Simply put, manufacturers can’t find workers with the necessary experience or skills. Measures like paying higher wages to retain top talent and outsourcing can help meet some workforce needs, but experts say a key solution to the growing skills gap problem is good ol’ training.

Unfortunately, research shows manufacturers often don’t have comprehensive training programs in place. So, we’ll walk you through the basics of getting a training program in shape and showcase some best practices to make it sustainable and effective. Think of it as a training camp for you and your employees.

But first, we’ll look more closely at the current skills shortage that is plaguing manufacturing.

“A widening gap”

In partnership, global consultancy Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute (part of NAM) have tracked the skills gap in manufacturing for 17 years and, in late 2018, released their fourth skills gap study.

The results were not heartening. “For manufacturers, filling open jobs has been an ongoing challenge in recent years, but the current conditions are reaching serious levels,” the report says. “… The results appear to highlight a widening gap between the jobs that need to be filled and the skilled talent pool capable of filling them.”

A host of factors contribute to the current talent shortage. Manufacturers surveyed by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute pointed to these as the top three:

  1. Shifting skill sets caused by the introduction of advanced technologies and automation
  2. Negative perceptions about manufacturing among students and their parents
  3. The retirement of experienced, skilled baby boomers.

“It may come as no surprise that shifting skills would top the list, as manufacturers find themselves in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution, one that is defined by its use of advanced technology to transform work throughout an organization,” according to the report. “Half of the manufacturers in the study expressed that they have already adopted technologies such as robots, ‘cobots,’ machine learning and artificial intelligence. In the presence of increased human-machine teaming … the types of skills that employees need to possess are rapidly evolving, and it seems increasingly difficult for the workforce to keep pace.”

Manufacturers in the bedding industry don’t necessarily require degrees in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, math) for workers on production lines, but like producers in other industries, they increasingly need “workers to program a CNC (computer numeric control) machine for a new job, or interact with CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) and other engineering or manufacturing software,” the report says.

In fact, manufacturers expect that in the next three years demand will be highest for skills related to technology/computers, digital applications, computer programming, and robots/automation.

Unfortunately, only 41% of manufacturers agree that their company trains people to develop the right skills, according to a report from Tooling U-SME, a company based in Cleveland that provides learning and development tools for manufacturers.

“The skills and talent crisis is here to stay, and maintaining the status quo for employee training and development is no longer an option,” Tooling U-SME’s “Industry Pulse: 2018 Manufacturing Workforce Report” says. “While some manufacturers are making progress, the industry still has a long way to go in addressing the skills gap through innovative approaches to training (both the) new and incumbent workforce.”

Getting your workforce in shape

You need a strong, skilled and flexible workforce. And that requires a comprehensive training program that will instruct current employees on complex machinery, transfer knowledge from experienced workers heading for retirement to younger workers and keep your entire workforce engaged in improving processes and procedures to manufacture higher-quality products more efficiently. Of course, when you’re able to hire new workers, you need to get them up to speed as quickly as possible, too. Whew!

When designing a training program, there are a number of basics to consider, including what you want to accomplish with each aspect of it. For instance, if you want to improve your flexibility, it’s better to spend time in the yoga studio rather than on the basketball court. Manufacturing training works similarly: Your efforts need to be structured to meet your overall business goals. If you want to reduce product returns, focus training programs on quality control. But if you are ramping up the manufacture of a new product line, your educational resources should go toward training both new hires and experienced hands on the new procedures and equipment.

No matter what formal training you offer, your employees always will build their skills through a combination of three methods: experience, exposure and education.

“The basic idea here — and see if your own workforce experiences line up with this — is that we learn much of what we learn at work from direct, on-the-job experience; a smaller amount from exposure to co-workers and their knowledge bases; and an even smaller amount from organized workforce education programs,” says Jeffrey Dalto, an instructional designer and senior learning and development specialist at Convergence Training, a training firm in Camas, Washington.

So, when you think about training your workforce, you want to make sure the information and skills workers pick up through each of those three approaches advance your business goals.

Given that we all learn differently and that the information and skills your workers need to master will lend themselves to a variety of presentation methods, your toolkit should contain — and combine — a variety of instructional methods. These include printed training materials; videos; online training materials; one-on-one, in-person training; on-site, instructor-led group training; classroom instruction; mentoring; shadowing; cross-training; and apprenticeships.

“Mountains of research data show that, in general, there’s no one training delivery method (or media) that’s more effective than the others. … You’ll often find that one type of training delivery method … may be more appropriate for a particular training need, while a different training delivery method … may be more appropriate for a second training need,” Dalto writes in an October 2017 blog post, “How to Create Better Workforce Development Training.”

For example, learning to program a new quilter could require hands-on instruction, supplemented by video tutorials and a step-by-step manual, while updating employees on safety procedures could be handled with a tip sheet and quick overview by a safety manager.

Finally, given the many workforce challenges they face, manufacturers need to embrace what Tooling U-SME calls “a full life cycle of training” that can include:

  • Improving onboarding processes
  • Strengthening ongoing training programs
  • Investing additional monies in training (materials, outside instructors, allocating time for learning)
  • Hiring full-time trainers
  • Using a pay-for-skill system
  • Partnering with local educational institutions on training
  • Offering 100% tuition reimbursement.

However you structure your training program, one of the worst things you can do is think of employee development as a one-and-done exercise that ends after a new employee is acclimated or all operators are trained on a new piece of equipment. Given the complexities of modern manufacturing, you should commit to a long-term training effort with refresher lessons and updates as required.

Next steps

Here are several other ways to make your training program more effective:

Break big lessons into smaller bits. Stop thinking of training as a slog that must drag on over hours or days. “New training methods and approaches such as just-in-time training and microlearning — small learning bites delivered in as little as 10 minutes at a time — allow training to be delivered where and when it’s needed,” according to the Tooling U-SME report. “Some (companies) are mandating an hour (of training) per week, which could translate to as little as 10 minutes per day online, right on the shop floor.”

Short educational sessions fit both our attention spans and how we retain information, Convergence Training’s Dalto says. “The human brain acts as a limit to the amount of information we can process. Think two to five ‘bits’ tops,” he says. “And we can only keep it in mind for a short time, too: 15 minutes, tops. Everything else falls by the wayside. It’s forgotten. Lost. So, keep training short and sweet and return for more later if necessary.”

Similarly, you’ll want to do something called “spaced practice,” Dalto says. “The technique … will make your training more effective by repeatedly introducing workers to concepts, keeping the knowledge fresh and active in their brains.” Short, quick refresher lessons do the trick.

Keep instructor-led training participatory. When we think of training, many of us think of sitting in a windowless room, a trainer at the front droning on as we struggle to pay attention. A better way is to involve employees in the learning process. “Have the workers play an active role. Ask questions. Do role-playing scenarios. See if they can lead the training. Have them complete worksheets or other exercises,” Dalto suggests. “There’s nothing wrong with trying a train-the-trainer course, too.”

Incorporate technology. Technologies that bring learning to life can make training more engaging and effective. The report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute points to a German industrial goods company that uses Microsoft HoloLens, an AI headset, to train its service engineers. “The technology helps engineers with visual cues on assembling and disassembling the latest company products in a 3-D space and with viewing equipment schematics in the field while being connected with specialists via a Skype call,” the report says.

You might not use AI headsets, but tools like Skype and online tutorials can improve understanding and retention — and bring a little fun to learning. Nothing says education has to be boring.

Make training mobile. If employees can access information on a tablet or smartphone, they can study on breaks or refresh their memories when facing a new task or encountering a situation for the first time. Mobile lessons also make it easy to share information across plants and allow workers to catch up if they miss a training session.

Enhance partnerships with your suppliers. When it comes to mattress manufacturing equipment, one of your best training resources is the company that supplied the machinery to you. Suppliers can provide on-site education and refresher courses, as well as instructional videos, written tutorials and video conferencing. Work with them to improve the training for both new hires and current workers.

Tap the knowledge of older workers. You may have been relying on experienced baby boomer workers to informally train younger hires. Before they retire, capture their knowledge and create formal methods for transferring what they know to the incoming generation of workers.

And don’t lose touch with those older workers after their retirement parties, especially if they want to stay busy in their senior years. Use them as mentors or bring them back for occasional workshops, with compensation, of course.

Assess your efforts. You want to make sure workers understand and remember the training they’ve received. Written tests or online quizzes are a logical method. “Testing is fine, but just because a worker passes a test after training doesn’t mean he or she will use that knowledge or skills on the job — or even retain the information for 24 hours,” Dalto says. “As a result, you’re going to want to get out in the field and see if workers are putting the training to use.” He suggests managers give credit to and support employees when they see them using their training. “And when they’re not, investigate further to find out why — it may not be that the training was ineffective,” he says.

Education is a superpower

Employee training isn’t just about conveying information or building skills, it’s about equipping your team and your business for the future. As the Tooling U-SME report puts it: “Employees are the secret weapon of manufacturers determined to beat the competition. They solve problems, create new ideas and cause innovation to happen.” 

Report Card: Manufacturers Need Improvement

Despite all the signs pointing to the need for employee training programs, many manufacturers acknowledge they aren’t devoting all the resources to training that they could, according to the “Industry Pulse: 2018 Manufacturing Workforce Report” from Tooling U-SME, a company based in Cleveland that provides learning and development tools for manufacturers.

  • Only 56% of companies assess vital job tasks with formal evaluations.
  • Only 36% of companies budget for employee development.
  • Only 34% of companies designate personnel to manage employee training and development.
  • Only 31% of companies offer structured training programs for manufacturing skills.
  • And employees are well aware that companies are falling short when it comes to workforce training:
  • Only 41% of employees completely or strongly agree that their company trains people to develop the right knowledge and skills.
  • Only 38% of employees completely or strongly agree that their company provides employees with training that meets the company’s current needs.
  • Only 28% of employees completely or strongly agree that their company provides employees with training that meets the company’s future needs.

More Resources

The Manufacturing Institute offers several detailed toolkits and guides for manufacturers wanting to build strong training programs, and it also maintains a list of organizations it collaborates with on manufacturing certifications. Look for these resources on its website at and click on the Skills Certification tab. The Manufacturing Institute is the social impact arm of the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.

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