Many employers prefer this model. Given the narrowing of the mission at many companies – to a core competency of a relative handful of tasks, letting others handle less-central requirements of the workplace – it makes sense to them. The very nature of training and integration of new workers – some drop out, some don’t make the cut, even the best can slow down the operation with questions and adjustments – seems antithetical to some operations designed to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at flat-out 100% of capacity, with minimal layers of management.
But is there another way? The projected shortfall in manufacturing workers – the U.S. is expected to come up a full 2 million employees short of its required 3.4 million new workers in the sector in the decade ending 2025, according to a study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte – is so significant that no approach should be ignored. And today, I want to recommend to every manufacturing CEO the very different experience of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, a maker of sophisticated equipment for the global power industry based in Pullman, Wash.
While others outsource, Schweitzer goes DIY. While others establish a tightly focused definition of work history and skills they’re looking for, Schweitzer focuses on fundamentals: “I like to hire smart people with good values and strong fundamental education,” says founder Ed Schweitzer, who started the company in his basement 35 years ago. Today, it employs just over 5,000 and has revenue of nearly $1billion.
I’m not suggesting that Ed Schweitzer’s way is the only way. But his company’s startling success at attracting, developing and retaining devoted employees shouldn’t be ignored. Schweitzer Engineering competes against far more glamorous technology companies for electrical engineering graduates, and more than holds its own. And given its remote location, about 75 miles south of Spokane near the Idaho border, conventional thinking suggests the company would long ago have exhausted the local labor market, where it employs more than one-in-ten residents (aside from the students at Washington State University). But a recent push to hire 100 assemblers, expected to take three months of concentrated recruiting, instead was completed in three weeks. (More on that below.)
So, ask yourself, under your company’s recruiting system, would you have hired Leo Ressa, known widely in Pullman as the guy who owned the shoe repair shop for 30 years? How about Terry Troyer, who spent 20 years running a couple of drive-thru espresso shops in nearby Lewiston, Idaho? Today, Ressa is 64 and Troyer is 60, and each is a manufacturing supervisor at Schweitzer, overseeing crews of 20 or more fellow employees, after having worked their way through a variety of departments and job functions.
Would you be planning to start an in-house algebra class, or one on writing, so that assemblers and others who’ve grown curious about how electricity works might re-start their education, or those who want to shift into customer-facing jobs can acquire better and deeper communication skills? And would you have campaigned heavily in favor of a school bond issue in Lewiston, diverting staff time to the cause, not to get potential workers trained on a particular machine but to get all high school graduates in the area better prepared for life?