The Skills Gap Problem Defined

US manufacturers continue to struggle with the “Skills Gap,” a.k.a the “Talent Gap” problem. Although definitions vary, the problem boils down to the fact that manufacturing jobs continue to get more technical and complicated , while the majority of available job applicants simply lack the skills and experience needed to fill those positions. The situation is only getting worse and has put a major strain on manufacturers who can’t grow or fill orders due to the challenge.

Small Companies Impacted Most

The issue is worst for small manufacturers who normally lack the resources of their larger counterparts (ie: think GE, Siemens, IBM and others) who often compensate and manage by offering higher compensation, better training to retain staff, and implementing strong apprenticeship programs.   Ask the typical small manufacturer if they could pull any, or all of this off, and you’re probably going to get laughed at, or worse.

Although we’re not in the manufacturing business (we’re an environmental, health and safety consulting business focused on helping our clients manage workplace safety and environmental compliance), the majority of our clients are, and all of them are small. Most have between 20-100 employees and are stretched to the limit just to maintain operations and keep up with orders. I hear it from them all the time, as well as the common refrain, “we have job openings, but just can’t find qualified candidates to fill the positions!”

We feel their pain because we’re struggling with the same problem, and have so since starting the business several years back. We constantly advertise job openings fishing for qualified candidates. In order to help our clients manage EHS compliance, our consultants must have a broad range of skills.  On the OSHA compliance and safety compliance side they must be able to deliver safety training for all OSHA standards, complete Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) procedures, conduct hazard assessments, complete industrial hygiene exposure tests, identify workplace safety hazards, etc.  On the environmental compliance side, skills include hazardous waste management, storm water & Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plans, air permits, hazardous materials reporting, and more.  I personally review all of the submissions and estimate that 5-10% actually meet all of our skills and experience requirements, and of those, most want much higher salaries/compensation than we’re able to pay due to our business model. It’s been a huge problem and one that I never anticipated back when I was writing the original company business plan. I often tell people, “finding qualified consulting candidates is our single biggest problem and obstacle to growth, and I never saw it coming!”

The Problem Isn’t Going Away

In the early days, as I came to grips with the problem, I “managed” by recruiting and hiring qualified consultants who quite frankly, I couldn’t afford. Actually it was an easy decision; either hire them and consequently lose profit margin, or shut down the business. It was that simple.   I was soon confronted with yet another problem… just because I was paying high compensation didn’t necessarily mean I was getting quality employees and quality work, but that’s another story (well, sort of).

I quickly recognized that the problem wasn’t going away, and so began planning and strategizing my way around and through it. (I normally like to refer to “we”, “us” and “ours” when referring to my business and team, but back then I was really on my own due to serious staff turnover problems which only amplified the “talent gap” issue and made me more determined than ever to conquer it. For my company, it was literally a life or death challenge: either I addressed the problem, or the company probably wouldn’t survive, let alone thrive, in the long term.).

Our Solution

The strategic approach was 2-pronged: 1) implement a smarter recruiting plan, and 2) eventually launch an apprenticeship program. The overall idea was to start off by recruiting a small, but strong and committed (and affordable) team that would then provide the foundation and resources needed to launch the second half of the strategy, an effective and successful apprenticeship program, which would ideally allow us to recruit, train and retain a long term supply of new, affordable and productive staff members. This sounds simple enough, but the plan took several years to gain traction and bare fruit. It wasn’t easy, but it’s finally working and the company would be in serious trouble today had I not committed to and acted on the strategy way back then!

Although we’re not a manufacturer, I believe that our “Skills Gap” counter attack plan can work for any industry (including manufacturing). Here’s a quick summary of how the plan unfolded:

“Smarter recruiting” included 3 major components:

  • Actively/proactively contacting and recruiting through my professional network (client companies and individual contacts).
  • Actively/proactively contacting candidates using LinkedIn recruiting messaging and tools.
  • Running non-stop job advertisements on LinkedIn and other platforms.

This might sound like a LinkedIn commercial, but it’s not. The platform has outstanding recruiting tools and made the plan much more executable, and ultimately successful. If you haven’t checked it out, I strongly recommend that you do.

As good as LI has been, leveraging my professional network has been equally valuable and effective. Doing so really boiled down to developing a quick “elevator pitch” and committing to consistently contacting and delivering it to my network. After a while, it really paid off.

Our Apprenticeship Program

After just over 2 years of sticking to the enhanced recruiting plan, we’ve finally succeeded in building a solid, committed and experienced team which has created the foundation needed to launch the second and most critical part of the plan, our apprenticeship program.

I can imagine what many of you are probably thinking about now, “an apprenticeship program, really?” Ya I know, the apprentice concept is nothing new, but there’s nothing easy or simple about implementing and managing such a program, especially within a small company. Again, small companies are typically stretched to the limit with very limited time and resources available to launch, support and manage a successful apprenticeship program. Our company is certainly no exception. For example, had I tried to launch this program even a year ago, our staff simply wouldn’t have had the time and capacity necessary to help, train and integrate the first apprentice candidate into our business. To make matters worse, most of the time our team members are out in the field working at client locations, so the office is often empty. Sure they could have helped “here and there,” but it probably wouldn’t have been long before the apprentice got discouraged by the lack of engagement, and left the company. Even if the apprentice didn’t give up, they probably wouldn’t have been adequately trained and prepared to transition into a productive and reliable consulting team member role in a timely manner, which is after all, the overall goal of the program!

Another key requirement for implementing an apprentice program is having enough workload and revenue to support it. In other words, the company must be able to pay the apprentice a livable salary, benefits, expenses, etc. and have enough available workload to get the apprentice involved so they can get trained and learn the business. In addition, our revenue has allowed us to hire enough core staff members to spread around the workload. This gives the team enough capacity and availability to help manage the apprenticeship program and ensure its success. Without these additional key components, the program is likely doomed to failure. It’s taken us several years to get to this point, and again, a year ago we couldn’t have pulled this off.

It Wasn’t Easy!

So as you can see, there’s nothing simple or easy about launching, supporting and managing a successful apprentice program, especially for a small businesses. We’ve struggled mightily to get here, but at long last we finally hired our first apprentice last month. His name is Thomas Berry and he’s a recent graduate of Texas A & M University’s Master of Public Health, Occupational Health and Safety program. So far, so good. His enthusiasm has helped make up for his lack of experience, and he’s already making significant contributions to our clients, not to mention our team members by relieving their workload (Tommy is doing some of their work!). Pretty soon we hope to transition him into full account management responsibilities.

Of course, an apprentice candidate’s success is largely dependent on their own commitment, skills and professionalism, but without a solid company and team there to back and support them, they probably don’t stand a chance. I’m finally able to say that after several years of struggle and effort, we can finally provide that support! It’s a major win for the company, for Tommy and all of our future apprentice candidates.

We would love to hear from any of you with questions about our apprentice program, or any similar success stories that you might want to share!

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