Lean Strategies for Workforce Development in Manufacturing

Last week I attended a meeting of of CAMPS, the Center for Advanced Manufacturing in the Puget Sound. Like many consortia around the U.S. and in other countries, a group of manufacturers, local government, academia and service providers (such as Gemba Research) have banded together to foster innovation, develop business, cooperate as a supply chain and of course implement lean manufacturing.
One of the hot discussion points in this meeting was regarding the challenges that Seattle area manufacturers are facing in finding qualified workers to take manufacturing jobs. While we hear of factory jobs leaving the United States, in some parts we are having trouble filling them. Locally this is in part this is due to the boom at Boeing and other local equipment manufacturers resulting in a tighter labor market, but I learned this is a longer term problem.
For various reasons many of us do not steer our children towards careers in manufacturing. The small to mid-size business in the CAMPS group are experiencing this as a serious threat, as they struggle to find and retain workers. It is limiting the growth and success of their businesses. While we can “blame society” and say that government, education and even parents should do more to prepare the next generation of machinist and technicians who will work in factories in the United States, at the root of this problem is the perception by some that steering people towards manufacturing rather than higher education would be the wrong thing to do.
Manufacturing jobs are an important part of a diversified industrialized economy. Yet as a society we do not do enough to ensure that we are developing the next generation of factory workers. Why is this? I have not gone to the gemba of the local high schools or parents’ living rooms to ask what people think about their children finding a career in manufacturing. I do not have the facts. So I speculate on some possible causes, and some potential lean strategies for workforce development in manufacturing.

Factories are dirty, dangerous and difficult workplaces.
In some factories this is true. A lean strategy is to make every part of the factory clean, safe and appealing. Some lean manufacturing purists may scoff a the idea of a “showcase factory” and spotless 5S as mere window dressing, but if young people who do not plan to go to college can find factories attractive and exciting places, they may become the future leaders of those factories. Lean aims to design processes around people in order to make them safer, better quality and more productive. If this is not aesthetically appealing then part of the human element is still missing.
Factory jobs are dead-end jobs. Many people who ask what I do for a living have never been in a factory. When they ask me what sort of degree is needed to be a consultant in manufacturing, it is clear that they think that lean manufacturing was dreamed up by a university professor and requires higher education to practice. In fact many schools teach it nowadays, but we learned 95% of what I know on the shop floor. Many of the best consultants and lean trainers we have met learned mostly hands-on, and their skills are in demand in banks, hospitals, government offices and other manufacturers as lean leaders. Some of the best managers and engineers I have met started from the factory. The problem solving and teamwork skills learned in a complex manufacturing environment are widely applicable and useful in other service processes, and this information should be used to attract bright young folk to spend some years on the gemba.

Factory jobs are boring.
There is a perception that manufacturing is repetitive and lacking in any creativity. Sometimes this is true. A lean strategy is to do model Toyota and others who train people to think and solve problems from day one, empowering them to follow the existing standard but also improve on it. Increasing the value of the workers through on-the-job training and cross training across multiple jobs is another strategy. This is not only the right thing to do for preventing the waste of peoples’ minds, it is highly profitable.
Factory jobs are going away. In fact they are not. They are moving from large corporations to small start ups, or from automobiles to biomedical, and some say that certain service jobs are the “new manufacturing”, but making things is here to stay. There will always be jobs that can be better performed by an enterprise that is 150 miles or less from the end consumer. In fact, with rising fuel prices this span may increase to hundreds or even thousands of miles, making local manufacturing viable due to increasing logistics costs and lead times. What’s more, experience in sound shop floor management is in demand around the world, if you are of a mind to pick up and move to a rising manufacturing center. It’s a good way to see the world.
There will not be enough people to fill factory jobs in the near future. And therefore manufacturing in the United States will not be viable, goes the argument against promoting interest and skills in manufacturing careers in our society. In some countries such as Japan it is a demographic reality with the population dropping something like 50,000 people per year and also aging rapidly. The Japanese are doing serious R&D in the area of human-like robots to do the jobs of people in factory as well as service industries. From a lean perspective, we might say “What a great problem to have!” and the government should focus the country on doing kaizen so that they free up 50,000 heads per year to match this “natural attrition” from the workforce. From a population of 130 million, that sounds easy, only 3.8% productivity improvement per year to keep all jobs filled with a shrinking workforce. Of course this does not take into account the aging of the population, and there is already a trend of retired Japanese engineers in their 70s returning to active work in manufacturing and other careers.
Workforce development is an issue we can’t be complacent about, whether in manufacturing, service or agriculture. A story on the radio last week highlighted the struggle of tomato farmers in New Jersey who were giving up planting this year in anticipation of being unable to find workers to pick the tomatoes during harvest. At least anecdotally, we are at risk of running out of people to grow our food. This was an issue of immigrant labor and tightening controls, but regardless of the reason, we need strategies for developing a workforce to keep the economy moving along efficiently. If this strategy is focused on making better workplaces, careers and life choices for people (as the best lean manufacturing transformations do) it would go a long way towards making great jobs and making great people. We just need to start by going to the workplace and doing kaizen.


  1. Karen Wilhelm

    April 28, 2008 - 9:03 am

    I recently wrote an article for AME’s Target magazine about a program in Grand Rapids, Michigan that is preparing inner-city students for engineering careers. One company that gives the students internships so they can see what manufacturing is like is Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping. Jim Zawacki, the owner of GRS&S is a supplier to Toyota among other companies, and has been making lean improvements for a number of years. That includes reaching out to the community in a number of ways. Any company can do this. Grand Rapids is fortunate because the kids are groomed thoroughly before they go out to work as interns.

  2. Gerry Robideau

    May 8, 2008 - 7:17 am

    Re: “Factory jobs are going away”. I confess to being part of the problem. I read an article the other day that said that the services component of the U.S. GDP was 78.6%. I don’t know what the % was 50 years ago but I suspect that services was much smaller and goods production was larger back then. And in the last 20 years non-farm industry productivity has improved significantly requiring even fewer people in what is left of the goods producing sector. Both of my children chose careers in the services sector and I confess to encouraging that choice because the past trends in the manufacturing sector are not encouraging and, like most parents, I took the narrow view of what’s good for me and mine.

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