Blog Post
June 21, 2021

Rewarding a culture of continuous learning

Here's why it’s time for manufacturing companies to rethink how they create a learning culture to develop, manage, and support workers in the digital age.


As the manufacturing sector strives to manage the continued disruption caused by the global pandemic, a key challenge persists – embracing Manufacturing 4.0 as an enterprise-wide standard. While there are many headwinds to the M4.0 goal, the lack of skilled employees to support enterprise-wide digital transformation is one of, if not the biggest factor, standing in the way.

In the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s latest Factories of the Future [1] survey, for example, the lack of skilled employees was highlighted as a major roadblock to implementing a true M4.0 strategy for almost half of the respondents (47%), the second highest concern.

Manufacturing 4.0 is already transforming factories in many companies, but some manufacturing leaders haven’t put the same level of thought into developing a strategy for transforming their workforce. They’re striving for Manufacturing 4.0 while mired in 2.0 workforce practices. They know M4.0 technologies require different skills. They understand that filling job vacancies due to retiring baby boomers is an issue that’s accelerating in the wake of COVID-19, and that the younger generation of talent has different needs and expectations of workplaces. As an industry, we’re far from a time when robots will run the show, and we still need the right people with the right skills to realize the full potential and value from M4.0. Old approaches to talent won’t work. It’s time to re-think how manufacturing companies develop, manage, and support their workers for the digital age.

Fixing the employee brand problem

Manufacturing continues to struggle to attract younger talent due to misconceptions about the industry. For example, only 45% of respondents to the 2018 L2L Manufacturing Index survey [2] believe manufacturing is a good career for young people. To change this, companies need to show that they’re going to manage their workforce differently. In a recent CNBC interview, Nick Pinchuk, chairman and CEO of Snap-on [3], puts it bluntly: “If you’re the head of a company and you say that people are your most important asset, on occasion you have to act like it.”

And that philosophy needs to cascade down the organization. “My senior leadership team,” adds Pinchuk, “needs to know that employees are the most valuable asset.”

But what does this look like in practice? These days workers, especially younger ones, expect the type of experience they have as consumers to extend to other areas of their lives, particularly the way they work. The cognitive dissonance that occurs when people move from how they operate their daily lives, to how they navigate the workplace, is stark and cannot be ignored. Other industries, like the technology sector, have mastered this blend and have reaped the rewards of being the employer of choice for next gen talent. And a big part of this is personalization.

For example, companies can offer training and career development paths, but let employees choose their own adventure. Investing in a Learning Experience Platform (LXP) will give younger generations the Netflix-style experience they prefer, while being flexible enough to cater to different learning styles and capabilities.

The same thinking should be applied to how information gets shared with the workforce. Self-serve tools that are available both online and through mobile apps, give workers the option to choose their preferred method of receiving information and communicating with coworkers. Consumerizing [4] the employee experience helps position the employer brand as forward-thinking and employee centric. It’s no longer a nice to have. It’s increasingly a workplace imperative and a key to future growth.

Train for tomorrow’s skills

Speaking of training, one of the hallmarks of M4.0 transformation is that it’s never going to be finally done. When has the path of advancement ever slowed down in our lifetime? It hasn’t. It just keeps accelerating. This suggests we’ll always be tracking a moving target. To adapt, companies need to equip their workers with the right skills for the future, while ensuring institutional knowledge remains in the company as the workforce ages.

First, consider the full spectrum of training methods and learning opportunities available to reskill the workforce. Production clearly won’t slow down, so reskilling initiatives will have to happen while the work continues. So companies need to design a structure that encourages and rewards learning on the job.

At the same time, there are a wide variety of new types of skills that will matter in the future, from operating advanced technologies to developing complex reasoning and communication skills. Companies can find and develop these skills in-house if they have the right technology. They can leverage Human Capital Management (HCM) systems to identify the right base skills, attributes, and interests in existing employees and encourage them to explore and grow. Allowing self-service growth and opportunity heightens engagement. People are dynamic, they can do many things, but only if they are given the opportunity to do so.

Succession planning should also be a key component of this strategy. A strong succession plan will support both leadership development and critical non-manager roles to ensure the organization is equipped to handle unplanned absences, fluctuations in demand, and employees leaving or changing roles.

Build, nurture, and reward

Many manufacturers are well down the path of digital initiatives, but they won’t realize the true value of Manufacturing 4.0 with a 2.0 workforce. It’s essential to optimize the people side of the business to match that level of efficiency and sophistication.

Strategically aware manufacturers are pulling data from across the organization and integrating it. Using data holistically gives companies more insight into the bigger picture of workforce performance. But that’s only possible when technology systems are connected, and employee data can be collated from multiple sources.

Many organizations are still operating with disparate systems for people management and HR processes. In fact, 34% of organizations in one study [5] said not having HR systems integrated with other organizational systems was a top barrier to making optimal use of predictive analytics. Using data holistically can help organizations place the right number of workers with the right skills in the right place at the right times for maximum productivity.

This maximization of skills and efficiency will allow manufacturing to offer the competitive wages it is known for. Maintaining the investment in the workforce does require that compensation matches the experience and skill that the employees have accumulated. Neglecting this could result in the hard-fought investment in human capital to be lost, as the detailed company knowledge could leave as the employee leaves. Employees need to see a connection between their compensation and skills to be truly valued.

A culture with purpose

Whether it’s on the production floor or in the back office, the sense that employees are working toward something bigger, a common goal, is essential for them to stay motivated and engaged. Embedding this sense of purpose and growth into work takes more than just lip service, and manufacturers will need to examine every touchpoint of the employee experience to uncover gaps, opportunities, and challenges. Doing this right, and right now, can create big wins in employee retention, reskilling, and productivity. When your team is engaged and immersed in a culture of continuous learning and purpose, and you’re set up to track, measure, and make decisions based on real-time performance, you’re on your way to creating a truly future-ready workforce.

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[1] 2021 Factories of the Future Survey,Manufacturing Leadership Council

[2] 2018 L2L Manufacturing Index survey

[3] CNBC interview with Nick Pinchuk, chairman & CEO, Snap-on

[4] Consumerizing the Employee Experience, Ceridian, 2019

[5] Cliff Stevenson, Claude Werder, and Melissa Benavides, Modern Analytics Technology Helps Organizations Make Better Decisions, Brandon Hall Group and Ceridian, 2017

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