Shops Fail to Do What They Stress with Workforce Training

Pinch and Mid-Point Machine CEO John Halbach review a cutting program. Credit: Mid-Point Machine

Machine shops overwhelmingly report that continuous improvement, workforce training and development, and production planning are critical to their growth and profitability. Yet many fall short in implementing these measures. With manufacturing business trending up, failure to develop competency in these areas could put job shops at a competitive disadvantage and hinder their ability to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

This is the finding of a recent study commissioned by Tooling U-SME, based Cleveland, which supplies in-house and online training resources for manufacturers as well as high schools and technical colleges. The study, "Tooling U-SME Manufacturing Insights Report," queried U.S. companies earlier this year, the largest proportion of which were job shops (21 percent) engaged in machining (77 percent of them), assembly (72 percent), and fabrication (55 percent).

The report states that many companies struggle "with these three critical initiatives, despite their importance to world-class manufacturing status and business success." Moreover, although there is "high executive awareness" of how important these initiatives are, only 39 percent of respondents reported they were operating at or near world-class manufacturing status.

The disparity is evident in one area especially: workforce training and development. While 42 percent of respondents rated this as highly important to business, only one quarter provide significant support, and just 7 percent claim to have achieved world-class status with it.

This is surprising since workforce development is an important way of assuring the ongoing cultivation of skills in workers - both for long-time employees and new hires. It is a hedge against the "brain drain" caused by Baby Boomers retiring and taking with them the knowledge they acquired over the years. And it is a valuable means of teaching the soft skills that are vital to efficient operations: teamwork, problem solving and coaching, as well as trust, respect, and communication.

Indeed, 39 percent of companies surveyed reported spending only 8 to 20 hours per year on individual employee training, or about 40 minutes weekly. That was the largest percentage of Tooling U-SME study respondents, followed by 21 percent that devoted 21 to 40 hours annually to employee training and 16 percent that allotted more than 40 hours of training per employee each year.

Without diligent efforts to improve workforce competencies, and importantly, relate them to business objectives, manufacturers face continued uncertainties in achieving the skills and operational efficiencies they need to be competitive.

"There is a correlation between the investments companies make in people, knowledge, and skills and their ability to increase operational efficiency and improve profitability," said Jeannine Kunz, director of Tooling SME-U. "We find that training people just to train them, without correlating training to business objectives, is problematic."

In an interview with ThomasNet News at last month's International Technology Manufacturing Show in Chicago, she explained how important it is for companies to invest in targeted training programs that give employees the specific skills they need to meet specified business objectives, rather than pursue one-size-fits-all programs that duplicate what they know. Tailoring training to a company's needs is a key benefit of the Tooling U-SME program, Kunz claimed.

Advantages of this approach include speed and focus. When a company contacts the organization for a program, Kunz and her colleagues do prior learning assessments of the workforce. This eliminates redundancies and consolidates the body of knowledge needed for a viable program, reducing the training time involved.

This is the first step toward developing a structured approach that links training to a company's needs and objectives. Other steps include a checklist that identifies what a company wants to achieve with training, the type of job performance required to meet objectives, and the skills employees need to upgrade their performance.

"There is not a lot of this structured approach being done," Kunz said. "The companies that have it do well."

This model is designed to produce better performance from a workforce, provide development pathways and career growth opportunities for workers, empower managers to evaluate worker performance using objective benchmarks, and, of course, offset shortages of skilled workers.


Companies will be able to develop more flexible and dynamic workforces, achieve cross-functionality across job roles to meet current and future manufacturing needs, and reduce labor costs.

Tooling U-SME offers many services. Kunz said the organization works with any size manufacturer. Companies with their own training programs can use the organization as a content provider, in-house or online. Those with apprentice programs can spend workdays teaching enrollees about machinery operations and having them view lectures and other materials from Tooling U-SME online at night.

The cost of training varies by company size, complexity, and duration. Kunz said program prices range from "a couple thousand dollars" to whatever is necessary to develop and sustain long-term programs for big companies.

Tooling U-SME also has national certification programs that recognize lean operations. These are developed with such organizations as the American Society for Quality, Association for Manufacturing Excellence, and the Shingo Institute.

In future ThomasNet News articles, I'll look at other aspects of the group's Manufacturing Insights Report.


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