Uncertainty abounds in a time of crisis, but workforce technology
can help manufacturers thrive.     By Danny Smith

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, stories have emerged of manufacturers stepping up to the plate. From doubling down on production of essential food and household goods to pivoting operations almost overnight to produce PPE and critical medical equipment, manufacturers are demonstrating incredible agility. And that agility is being fueled by a very resilient workforce. Take the story of 43 workers at the Braskem petrochemical plant in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, who volunteered to live in the factory for nearly a month, working in 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, to produce the raw materials needed for PPE.1

The crisis we’re facing is creating an opportunity to truly understand the depth of the manufacturing workforce’s resilience, and its ability to not only adapt to uncertainty, but to thrive under it. While the current situation is an extreme example, the manufacturing sector was already operating in the context of constant, rapid change, due to globalization as well as widespread technological adoption under M4.0. The steps manufacturing leaders take now to navigate through the pandemic and help define their “next normal” can build a culture of agility and resilience that will serve the sector well beyond the current crisis.

The old normal isn’t coming back and the future will continually have disruption. Manufacturers need to be ready. A willing and able workforce will be critical, and digital technologies that help the workforce pivot quickly will help secure a competitive advantage. Here are five realities of the next normal that will give manufacturers an opportunity to build agility and resilience for future, starting right now:

REALITY 1: 

Being Able to Adapt Now Means Being Able to Adapt Always 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one big pivot for the manufacturing sector. It’s also a dress rehearsal for what’s to come, as the world is likely entering a period of seismic change. Manufacturers can build on the momentum from this pivot and translate it into a highly agile culture.

The key to managing uncertainty is being able to predict what’s coming, rather than looking at what happened after it’s done. A modern Human Capital Management (HCM) platform is a critical tool for manufacturers right now because it provides a foundation for pivoting the organization, workforce, and culture. Having a single source of truth for your workforce data that’s accessible across the organization in real time means managers can quickly redesign shifts to enable social distancing, for example, or any configuration needed to adapt to any reality. It breaks down communication siloes to put everyone, in every department, on the same page and focused on the same goal. It allows training and development to be simultaneously personalized and standardized. And it helps the whole organization make informed decisions, right now.

Perhaps even more important, it helps organizations embed a culture where problem-solving and pivoting are part of the DNA. It’s the difference between having your workforce take a challenge and run with it because it’s who they are, rather than being dragged along by change.

Steps that leaders take now to help define their “next normal” can build a culture of agility and resilience.

REALITY 2: 

The Skills Gap Won’t Shrink, Even With High Unemployment 

Unemployment is expected to be at around 9% by the end of 2021.2 While it marks the end of the historically low unemployment rates that have heightened the war for talent over the past few years, it likely won’t solve the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing. Changes to the global supply chain are poised to create jobs at home, while the pandemic will accelerate the growing ‘silver tsunami’ of retiring workers. Manufacturers may not be able to simply close the gap with a hiring spree either, since the available talent pool doesn’t necessarily have the right skills.

Manufacturers will need to solve the skills gap internally through widespread re-skilling and up-skilling initiatives. Organizations should double down on their learning investment to train the next generation of workers, while building out strategies for succession management and career pathing that connect learning to organizational goals. Achieving this at scale will require technology to make the experience personalized and adaptable to different generations, learning styles, roles, and capabilities.

REALITY 3: 

What You Do Now Will Affect Your Ability to Retain Your Best Talent Later 

During times of crisis, the workforce is judging organizations and leadership teams on how well they steer the ship through the storm. This is especially heightened when stories abound in the news and on social media of organizations going above and beyond to support workers, their families, and the community. This is a time when how you treat your people and the working environment you offer will be under a magnifying glass, and your chosen approach can influence retention – positively or negatively.

One key area of focus is on your managers. This layer of the organization plays a critical role in setting the tone and behavior for lower-level employees, and they may find themselves second-guessing their career choices and desiring more stability. Losing managers hurts the culture in the long run, and also has a negative effect on productivity. Failing to support managers through calm leadership, transparent communication, and resources3 can cause them to lose faith in the company and leave – maybe not right now in the midst of the crisis, but later down the road. The right technology can help foster better business continuity, change management, and self-service, all of which help build confidence in the organization.

Don’t forget the workforce and their needs as well. One area of particular interest right now and continuing in the future is employee financial wellness. The average wage earner continues to experience cash shortages. Absences due to unexpected circumstances, such as a large car repair bill, can impact your ability to start the production line if a key worker can’t afford to repair their car. Making every day a potential payday by providing immediate access to earned pay with no fees for employees (or costs for employers) can help keep employees on the line and boost retention.

REALITY 4: 

Now Is the Time to Think About Recruitment – Even Though You May Not Be Hiring 

While many organizations may be in a hiring freeze for the time being, hiring will ramp up again at some point. Manufacturers should start planning for an increase in hiring now by revisiting their recruitment, hiring, and onboarding systems, as well as their procedures, to increase efficiency and speed. Technology can help by reducing the administrative burden on HR teams to allow more time for strategic initiatives, such as training and succession planning for business continuity.

Organizations should also consider their talent pipelines and how they may be able to capitalize on new opportunities. One example is tapping into a generation of young people who are nearing the end of high school and may not be able to afford a college education due to the economic hardships their families are facing. Additionally, many students may not view the cost-benefit tradeoff of remote learning at a university as a good deal. Manufacturing has long struggled with a branding problem among young people due to misconceptions about the industry, largely passed down from their parents. It will be up to manufacturers to demonstrate that manufacturing is a highly innovative sector with good salaries and many opportunities to grow.

Manufacturers should take this opportunity to reach younger workers by partnering with high schools or deepening existing relationships with schools and student organizations. Couple this with mobile-friendly, credentialed learning programs sponsored by companies and offered at no cost to students, along with good recruitment marketing, and a brand-new talent pool is born.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended every aspect of the reality we knew, but with change comes opportunity.

REALITY 5: 

It’s Time to Leverage Real-Time Workforce Management Capabilities  

Ongoing investment and focus on improving processes with M4.0 technologies will continue, and it will accelerate. It is critical to bring workforce planning, management, and tracking technologies up to speed as well – approaches with manual, disconnected, or end-of-life systems may barely serve in good times but are an anchor to pivoting efficiently and effectively. Manufacturers will continue to experience periods of uncertainty, which will lead to labor waste without the ability to manage costs in real time and pivot without a large administrative burden.

Manufacturers need to examine current digital transformation projects and confirm that workforce management is prioritized. Providing operations managers with visibility to the actual (not standard) costs of every decision in real-time will give them a powerful tool to control costs, reduce cost variability, and become both more efficient and more predictable. This will never diminish in importance. Given most manufacturers’ second highest expense is labor, it could mean the difference between pivoting profitably or accelerating losses.

The COVID-19 crisis has upended every aspect of the reality we knew, but with change comes opportunity. Manufacturers can build a vision that will inspire the workforce to be resilient, embrace change, and solve for the future at every level of the organization. A robust digital HCM platform is the key to organizational agility and pivoting successfully. Make sure HCM technology is part of your M4.0 journey.  M

Footnotes

1 https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/23/factory-masks-coronavirus-ppe/
2 https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56314
3 https://www.ceridian.com/blog/category/COVID-19%20Central