Plugging the Brain Drain
How U.S. Chemical Companies can Cope with Skill Scarcity in a Shifting Global Market
Human Resource Management - The U.S. chemical industry currently supports almost 25% of U.S. GDP and produces more than 15% of the world´s chemicals. However, by 2015 China is expected to overtake the U.S. as the largest chemical producer in the world. Competition from India and Brazil is also shifting the balance of market importance, meaning that in order to remain competitive in a new global context, chemical producers in the U.S. are under increasing pressure to streamline manufacturing processes and reduce costs in every possible area.
Additionally, the concentration of craftsmen in small areas spotted across a vast continent means that finding the right skills outside those clusters can be extremely challenging.
Even within those clusters, intense competition from other local producers makes recruiting talent almost equally as demanding. In both cases, finding quality can be extremely difficult and is usually expensive, especially when considered in light of changing demography in the U.S.: by 2014 most baby boomers will have left the workforce, while the number of new entrants to the skilled trades is declining in favour of going to college.
Ensure Processes Reflect Reality
Being prepared to pay competitive wages for the required skills is no longer enough to attract good workers from the competition, or to get them to remote regions. Management must accept that existing processes which depend on a high level of experience and skill may not be realistic in the current environment, where the availability of expertise has significantly decreased. Processes must therefore be adapted to reflect that environment and not maintained simply because they worked in the past.
Instead, the focus must be on what processes need to be completed and which behaviours are fundamental to making them work. Then, managers must be realistic about which skills already exist in their teams and find ways of leveraging them accordingly. By fostering active supervision, installing performance measurement systems aligned to requisite behaviors and institutionalizing training, expertise can be built and managed in a way that both recognizes and applies the aptitude at hand.
Building Knowledge Capital
Taking a closer look at the potential of current staff at lower levels is also crucial in an employee´s market. Consider a company where a highly experienced and well-respected supervisor has retired after thirty years at the same plant: finding someone to replace his site knowledge will be impossible. However, it may be that a junior colleague of his is capable of understanding and taking on many of his responsibilities, but due to a lesser site experience level works more slowly and needs a little help to get things done. It makes sense then, to redefine timeframes, possibly re-align some roles & responsibilities of the former position and accept that some processes may take longer. The return will be realized in a faster ramp up time to meeting full job expectations and recruitment costs. The skills that our retired supervisor has taken with him may actually still exist within the company but are not being used or accessed properly.
Making the company more attractive to new entrants will also help to counteract the current dearth of craft employees available. At a time when more and more people are opting for a college education over entering the skilled trades, companies must make themselves more appealing to younger people - whether that means revising entry requirements or setting up apprenticeship programs. Training and aligning recruits to the systems they use will mean that skills not only develop faster and remain within the company, but that they will also remain with the company as understanding of the site environment deepens. In a professional context, this understanding does not just mean the literal, geographical surroundings, but rather the ways in which systems and procedures work: knowledge that can be used and transferred internally and across geographical boundaries.
Retaining Valuable Expertise
Obtaining and rewarding expertise must be supported by consistent development: training is critical to retaining expert staff. Take the example of a Maintenance First Line Supervisor (FLS), who has recently been promoted due to consistently good working practice and willingness to get the job done. However, on his first day in his new role, the FLS is simply given a handbook listing roles, responsibilities, procedures and process flows, but providing no guidance whatsoever of the specific behaviours he needs to perform on a daily basis. He is not equipped with the tools to be a good manager or supervisor of people, which will have a direct effect on both maintenance productivity and schedule compliance.
However, by defining required behaviours, conducting workshops and intensive shop-floor-coaching, both the FLS and his team will gain a deep understanding of which skills are required of them and when, meaning that methods can be properly implemented and existing skills built upon. As sitting in a 40-hour training session is not productive, workshop content should be broken into digestible modules and spread across a number of weeks. Material can then be absorbed properly and gives participants the chance to put their skills into practice before the next session starts.
Training and coaching will contribute not only to an improvement in efficiency and cost savings, but also to the sense of satisfaction and pride in work that success generates: a combination that is crucial if the industry is to compete against the golden handshakes of sunnier climes.
It is no surprise to anyone that emerging markets are forcing the old world to adapt to the new - one in which costs must be ever lower and productivity higher in order to stay in play. In this context, rewarding and training staff may seem to be time and cost intensive, but it will certainly be cheaper than the long-term effects of outsourcing skills. Creating an organization that facilitates learning and utilizes existing skills means that dependency on individual knowledge is reduced, further strengthening the ability of that company to compete. Equally, setting up programs to attract younger people who can be trained and will develop long-term expertise will prove invaluable as the population ages and becomes increasingly mobile. In this period of transition both domestically and internationally, the only way to ensure sustainability is through investing in the true assets of a company: its people.