Much has been made about the skills gap in U.S. manufacturing and how to address the problem. Much less has been made about what might be one of the most effective methods of attracting, retaining and developing talent: mentoring.
In the coming years, businesses expect to experience an unprecedented exit of workers. While workers reaching traditional retirement age likely won't follow the traditional retirement patterns of the past, this doesn't mean there won't be workforce shortages in some areas.
With their departures will go the experience and hard-earned practical knowledge that has built and sustained some of the nation's most successful businesses.
Already, even with the high unemployment rate today and job openings, manufacturers are struggling to find skilled workers to fill key positions. The widening skills gap is approaching critical levels, threatening manufacturers' competitiveness and hurting their chances for business expansion.
Based on more than 1,300 employers surveyed for ManpowerGroup's 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, skilled trades positions are currently the hardest to fill. These include jobs like welders, electricians and tool and die makers. The survey findings mark the third consecutive year that skilled trades were named the number-one toughest sector to fill.
Mentorships represent a significant and empowering tool available to companies facing these challenges that is often overlooked.
Mentorship, at its most basic definition, is an ongoing personal-development relationship in which experience-based knowledge is passed on to less-experienced workers. Mentorships have roots in trade apprenticeships that originated hundreds of years ago, but some of today's leading businesses - including Dow Chemical, John Deere and Motorola - have all invested in mentoring programs in recent years.
"There is certainly a role for mentorship programs in bridging the talent gap," Melanie Holmes, ManpowerGroup's vice president, said in an interview with Career Journal. "Technology has radically evolved the manufacturing environment, and many jobs require advanced skills and critical thinking."
Holmes added, "One way to demonstrate this evolution is through mentorships, where young people are introduced to high-tech manufacturing environments and connected with current professionals in the field."
Mentoring has proven to provide a number of valuable benefits to mentorees, including specific skills and knowledge that are relevant to professional and personal goals; critical feedback in key areas, such as communications, interpersonal relationships and technical abilities; a sharper focus on what is needed to grow within the organization; networking with a more influential employee; knowledge about corporate culture and unspoken rules within the organization; and a friendly ear with which to share frustrations (and successes).
Likewise, mentoring can help companies in a number of areas of competitiveness, including enhancing strategic business initiatives, encouraging talent retention, reducing turnover costs, improving worker productivity, enhancing professional development, and, of course, sharing valuable, hands-on knowledge with high-potential employees in need of such information.
Indeed, employers can reap huge rewards from mentorship programs.
"Mentorship programs are a cost-effective way to offer development to employees in either the mentor or mentee role," Holmes said. "For those that offer mentoring to high school or college students, the employer is helping to create a pipeline of future talent, and also helping to change the preconceived notions of manufacturing."
Jacey Wilkins, director of communications for The Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), agrees.
"Mentorships can help bridge the talent gap because they are an effective means of giving individuals hands-on exposure to manufacturing careers," Wilkins said.
Wilkins notes that many NAM members go out into their communities and mentor individuals. She cites FIRST Robotics, Project Lead the Way and SkillsUSA, wherein industry mentors help students design robots, market a developed product or formulate ideas to solve engineering challenges.
"For those students," Wilkins told Career Journal, "the connection to real jobs and real-life manufacturing not only lets them see the relevance of what they are doing to the world around them, but shows them a clear pathway they can follow to pursue manufacturing jobs."
Consider ACE Clearwater Enterprises, a key supplier to Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and the U.S. government, among others. The California-based company not only mentors within its own metal forming operation, but also sponsors several local high schools in the FIRST Robotics national competition, as well as an all-female robotics team in Northern California.
Students receive the obvious benefit of such sponsorships, which can involve employees as mentors and/or volunteers. However, sponsor companies such as ACE can also gain in a number of ways, including helping to build a technologically literate workforce, providing employee team building and training opportunities, and renewing inspiration and satisfaction among employees.
Moreover, involvement in these types of programs can create a pipeline for future talent. Getting involved can produce visibility in the community, which in turn can help the company in the recruitment of new talent. "Maybe students who didn't know ACE existed now see the manufacturing opportunities in their backyard," Wilkins said.
As calls for solutions to the skills shortage grow louder, policymakers are looking for ways to tackle the issue, including investing in STEM education and job training and engaging in tomorrow's workforce through mentorship programs.
For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) MENTOR program is an initiative aimed at introducing new design tools and collaborative manufacturing practices to high school students. Part of DARPA's Adaptive Vehicle Make program portfolio, the MENTOR effort engages high school students in a series of collaborative distributed manufacturing and design experiments. The overarching objective of the program is to develop and motivate a next generation of system designers and manufacturing innovators by exposing them to the principles of foundry-style digital manufacturing through modern prize-based design challenges.
Outlining seven programs to support a goal of providing 500,000 more skilled workers for the nation's manufacturing sector within five years, the White House announced in mid-2011 a number of partnerships to help accomplish this goal, by opening doors to new jobs for workers, and helping employers find the trained people they need to compete against companies across the globe. The Obama administration highlighted mentoring of high school and college students as one of the ways to accomplish this goal.
An important part of the White House initiative, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and the SME Education Foundation partnered with the National Academy Foundation and others to provide more than 1,000 mentorships every year for the following five years, continuing their long tradition of mentoring high school and college students, teachers, counselors and administrators on the requirements for a career in the high-skilled, high-tech environment of 21st century manufacturing.
"This is about leveraging the knowledge of the current workforce to ensure a strong industrial base for years to come," SME Executive Director and CEO Mark Tomlinson said in a statement. "Professionals who are passionate about making things can share their enthusiasm with the next generation. That's how to engage them - get the kids hooked on the thrill of seeing an idea become a reality."
To find out more about what a successful mentorship program entails, stay tuned for part two in this two-part series.
Mentorship programs help bridge the talent gap.Image courtesy of nokhoog_buchachon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net