Attracting and Retaining Skilled Labor

Attract and Retain Skilled Labor

The U.S. economy added 13,000 manufacturing jobs in January, and employment in the sector has been growing since the end of the Great Recession. That’s good news, but this positive trend does pose a challenge to manufacturers that need more skilled workers. In fact, in a recent survey, 52% of manufacturers identified finding skilled labor as their number one barrier to growth[i]. So what can manufacturing companies do to attract and retain skilled labor?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet and implementing an effective recruiting strategy will require an investment in time and resources. However, the suggestions below may help in developing a plan to expand your workforce.

Develop a culture of recruiting

Recruiting should not just be the responsibility of the HR department. Friends, relatives and acquaintances of current employees may offer a large pool of potential employees. Additionally, current employees are in a position to make a credible case as to why their friends and relatives should consider working for your company. Providing positive recognition, financial bonuses or other rewards (such as additional vacation days) for top recruiting employees can be a great way to generate new leads. This can also be a diagnostic tool for the organization. If current employees are hesitant to recommend working for the company, it may be a sign that there are problems that need to be addressed. Providing dedicated time for employees to reach out to their networks is another strategy that has proven successful for some companies.

Outreach and networking should be something that happens all the time, even If you are not currently hiring. Posting frequently on social media and guest blogs of associations and organizations related to your industry will ensure that your company remains front-of-mind for potential employees when you are hiring again. Presenting at local events and engaging with associations and trade groups in your industry is another way to expand your network of potential employees.  Keep in mind, that even if someone is not currently looking for a new job, they may know others who are.

Recruiting efforts can also be bolstered by making things easier for a potential applicant. This includes displaying career opportunities and employee benefits prominently on the company’s home page and making the application process easy and convenient.  Jasper Rubber, an employee owned rubber contract manufacturer in Indiana, is a great example of a company that has made this a priority. The homepage of the company’s website includes front and center a large link to the “career opportunities” page under a banner that says “Your Future Begins Here”. This is paired with links highlighting many of the generous benefits offered by the company.  Mike Hayden, Executive Vice President of Operations at Jasper Rubber explains, “As an employee owned company, we believe that Jasper Rubber offers many unique opportunities and great benefits.   We didn’t want to bury that in a ‘career’ page that is difficult to find.” In addition to emphasizing career opportunities and benefits on its homepage, Jasper Rubber also makes applying for positions easy by  accepting applications either onsite or online.


Reconsider the Job Requirements and Focus on Training and Education

One way to increase the pool of potential applicants is to reconsider what types of experience, certification and skills are really necessary. For each position, ask whether the right person could be successful with the right training even if they have little experience.  If the answer is yes, focus on hiring someone who is eager and able to learn new skills rather than someone who “checks all the boxes” in terms of experiences, current skills and certifications.  A good training program and the opportunity to gain new skills may, in fact, be an incentive that encourages people to join your organization. A 2015 article titled “HR Gets Creative to Hire Manufacturing Workers” by Dori Meinert at the Society for Human Resource Management, highlights EJ Ajax, a metal forming company in Illinois, as an example of a manufacturing company that is leading in hiring and training workers.  The company hires workers in partnership  with state and county programs aimed at helping  the long-term unemployed, single parents, or people that were previously incarcerated. The company emphasizes developing the skills of its employees and prominently posts a skills matrix, which lists the machines and tasks for each department along with each employee’s skill level. This serves as an incentive for both employees and managers to advance training and demonstrates the career paths available to employees.

Another opportunity to attract and retain skilled labor and enhance training programs is to offer “dual career ladders”.  Instead of promoting the best workers to supervisory or managerial roles, provide other incentives for them to opt into a leadership role in their current function. This allows the best workers to continue in their role (where there may be a shortage of workers) and also gives them an opportunity to train and mentor new employees.

Engaging with local trade schools, high schools, community colleges and workforce development programs is another way to increase exposure to potential workers. Seek opportunities to engage with these organizations through guest lectures, plant tours, apprenticeships, and scholarships. Not only will this allow you to develop relationships with potential employees, but building relationships with the organizations that are training the future workforce is a great way to influence what is being taught. If there are gaps in specific skills or knowledge needed for your industry, work with these organizations to see if there are opportunities to adjust their curricula to ensure that graduates of their programs are better prepared for your industry. GenMet, a metal fabrication company in Mequon, Wisconsin, is also identified in Meinert’s article as a company that regularly brings local students in for plant tours, and hosts two-week apprenticeship programs to train high school students. They also take a creative approach in seeking to hire teachers in summer months so that the teachers can share information about the experience with their students.

Invest in a Great Company Profile and Great Job Description

Once created, a company profile can be reused many times in both job postings and social media, so it’s worth it to invest time in creating something that stands out and highlights the best aspects of your company.  Focusing on a positive culture and lifestyle balance may be especially effective at convincing people to choose your company. If your company has a positive culture, a short video highlighting this may be a more effective means to promote it than a written description. A video affords the opportunity for current employees to speak genuinely about why they like their jobs and the company.

While the profile can be reused over and over, the job description will need to be tailored for each position. As mentioned before, it is critical to think carefully about what types of skill, certifications and training are really required and what could be taught to the right candidate. Once a firm has completed this process it is critical to accurately and clearly define the requirements in the description. Failing to do so will waste the time of both the hiring company and the applicants as it will increase the number of unqualified candidates that apply.

Consider Outside Help
While the suggestions above can help attract and retain skilled labor, they all require considerable time and effort. Contracting with a recruiting agency may offer an opportunity to more easily connect with the right candidates. However, careful consideration should be put into deciding whether to use a recruiting agency. Good recruiting agencies can save you time by tapping into their extensive networks, but a bad recruiting agency can damage your company’s reputation and do more harm than good. If electing to go with a recruiting agency, it may be best to get a referral from a trusted source within your industry.


[i] 2019 National Manufacturing  Outlook and Insights. Leading Edge Alliance,