Dinner debate: Wised-up workforce

Posted on 7 May 2013 by The Manufacturer

“At peak we have four temporary workers to one permanent. The temps we bring in, who may only stay for two weeks, need to be up to speed on quality and output within forty eight hours.”This is the challenge Simon Noakes, operations manager at garden equipment manufacturer Hozelock, shared as a ‘starter for ten’ at TM’s most recent Manufacturer Director’s Forum debate.

The headline subject under discussion was; ‘How can UK manufacturers create engaged and effective workforces – and does this matter to their competitiveness?’ Guests came from a broad range of sectors, including defence, heavy industry, automation equipment and electronics, and ranged from SMEs to large organisations. Their diversity brought different interpretations of the latest buzz word in workforce management ‘engagement’.

Pierfrancesco Maneti, EMEA head of the industrial research operation, IDC Manufacturing Insights, presented findings from a recent survey of manufacturing leaders across 11 countries which indicated: “Competitive European manufacturing is becoming less about definable measurements and more about ‘undefineable’ measurements. Less about labour, for instance, and more about informed workers and decision makers.”

But while everyone agreed that this was important, Mr Noakes and others had nuanced views.

“I’d love to have a fully engaged workforce with self managing teams,” Mr Noakes said to guests. But with incredibly volatile, weather reliant demand and a competitive differentiator which relies primarily on being able to service changes in demand much faster than China-based rivals, Noakes said this is not possible. Instead, the most important question is, “How do we get people into the business and up to the required standard of quality and productivity quickly and effectively while also maintaining the flexibility to release them again if the weather turns outs as it has done this spring?”

In this environment, Noakes said ‘engagement’ takes on a much more pragmatic hue. “Our processes are deliberately designed to be simple. We don’t need highly skilled individuals, but we do need people who respond well to the manufacturing environment – to the expectations we have around productivity and quality.”

This scenario leads to engagement being defined by employee willingness to interact positively with measurement systems for these metrics – Hozelock uses a Kronos workforce management interface so that it can track productivity and defects by line and by individual, correlating staff intake with changes in KPIs.

“Unfortunately,” comments Noakes, “we find it difficult to get that responsiveness in British workers. Around seventy percent of our employees at any one time tend to be from Eastern Europe. They engage well with our metrics driven culture.” Noakes’ observations resonated with others around the table who found that, while a shortage of highly qualified STEM candidates is undoubtedly a barrier to UK manufacturing resurgence, the availability of diligent low and medium skilled workers is a more immediate factor in fulfilling demand.

Ronnie Hamilton, production director at distributed antenna systems provider, Axel Wireless for example, said: “We don’t have the ability to predict when we are going to be busy. So we have to find people at short notice. We have tried to create a core skilled workforce but actually my biggest challenge is in finding reliable semi-skilled and unskilled people.”

Such observations led quickly to discussion of cross sector competition for the highly transferable abilities of lower skilled workers and to the image of manufacturing operative-type jobs compared to, for instance, call centre or supermarket work.

Quote unquote: key comments from the evening

Why are supermarket jobs more attractive than low-medium skilled manufacturing jobs?!

Graham McKendry, General Manager, Nuclear Management Partners: “In a market economy, where people will go for jobs which appeal or which they think will work for them, that is a question you have to turn back on yourself. We need to think harder about how we make manufacturing jobs seem more interesting” Recommended reading: G. Hamel, What Matters Now, 2012

What characteristics define competitive businesses today?

Pierfrancesco Maneti, Head EMEA, IDC Manufacturing Insights: “Manufactures in the West have moved on from thinking about their workforce simply as labour. Today they think more about holders of knowledge and decision makers.”

Emma Weir, Account Manager, Kronos: “Five years ago management gurus talked about the importance of job satisfaction. Today the focus is on employee engagement. There is a difference between getting someone to enjoy their job and getting them to enjoy doing it well.”

Apprenticeships provide a long term skills-gap fix but are not a short term growth enabler.

Andy Robinson, MD, Autotech: “The biggest challenge we have is managing our growth. We grew 36% last year and predict bigger growth this year. We really need more skilled people – which is why we set up our own apprenticeship training academy and recruitment company. But we still have to manage our opportunities carefully.”

Graham McKendry, general manager at Nuclear Management Partners challenged his peers to think more carefully about the way they marketed their workplace and the job roles within it before throwing up their hands in despair at their inability to compete with supermarkets for employees.

“You must turn the question back on yourself,” he asserted. “Why do people see those jobs as being more attractive or accessible? [Management author] Gary Hamel highlights that to compete for people at all levels today, businesses must take into account the determining factor of employee control, or perception of control, over their jobs and their careers. Companies which appear to deny control will lose out.”

Such a hypothesis poses a big challenge for the manufacturing sector. The industry is popularly perceived as a rigid, clock in clock out work environment and it was suggested that better uptake of user-friendly workplace management technology and communication of best practice flexible labour strategies, could help manufacturers attract appropriate workers at all levels more easily. It was agreed that a more flexible sector profile would help address gender imbalance in particular.

Turning to the influence of pay on the ability of manufacturers to recruit the people they needed, regional and sector difference were observed and while some dismissed pay as a “short term motivator,” Brian Corless, managing director of Caparo Forging insisted that “Pay is the base line when it comes to recruitment in a competitive market.” John Kavanagh from JCB agreed. He shared how keeping the salaries of technician level jobs at its Staffordshire plant above those of local skills competitor Alton Towers was helpful in getting recruits through the door.

But Mr Corless was keen peers should not to focus on recruitment strategies at the expense of retention, or to let themselves off the hook in considering their personal influences on the ability of companies to retain and develop talent once it is secured.

“When it comes to recognition and retention, the way in which you manage people becomes the prevalent factor,” he said. “I have worked for one or two individuals whom I felt I would walk through brick walls for. Others have led me to look elsewhere because of their poor leadership. We should always be aware of how our approach ‘lands’ with the individuals we interact with.

Guests at this Manufacturer Directors’ Forum dinner debate represented: Autotech, Axel Wireless, BAE Systems, Caparo, Hozelock, IDC Manufacturing Insights, JCB, Nuclear Management Partners

The Manufacturer is grateful to Kronos for sponsoring this event