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5 Tips to Jumpstart Advancement Planning for Frontline Manufacturing Employees

“I wanna know what my path looks like, and I’m in a hurry to get going…”

A number of years ago, a story became a popular anecdote, with a hypothetical leader saying, “What if I invest in developing my people and they leave?” The sage advisor then replies, “What if you don’t invest in their development and they stay?” At this point, we’ve all heard this story in some form, and most companies have responded with some level of increased investment in professional development and training.

But the labor market continues to shift, and manufacturers have to raise their game again.

Recent data from a McKinsey survey tells us that forty-three percent of the employees in manufacturing said they are at least somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months. One of the top reasons employees cite for a lack of engagement is that they didn’t see advancement paths or opportunities. Besides raising starting pay, which we talked about earlier this year, advancement plans for your employees might be the biggest actionable lever you can pull right now to retain the people you’ve recently hired.

Creating effective, visible advancement opportunities for our employees, especially on the frontline, is an obvious retention challenge – or, again flip it, a great opportunity to keep our best people. That said, manufacturers do not need to keep crossing their fingers, hoping their frontline employees stay.

Employers oftentimes hear entry-level workers asking for internal opportunities of promotion and raises. A commons response to this request: Work hard and pay your dues.

Manufacturers, however, cannot look at advancement opportunities for their staff in two to five-year increments. You will lose a significant chunk of talent looking for growth, visibility and transparency in their first six to 12 months. It’s another situation where the labor market, cultural norms, and the power of the employee have shifted what we need to do to be explicitly successful.

If manufacturers embrace early development and advancement planning as an exciting part of building your team and culture – and with it your competitive talent advantage – the industry as a whole will grow stronger and better. Here are a few tips to developing a solid program.

Let individuals drive the process

Your commitment to an employee’s professional development builds trust – quickly. But more importantly, it shows care for your relationship with the employee. Organizations and leaders who effectively create employee advancement plans, consider:

  • Necessary, relevant experience
  • What motivates and drives individuals
  • Relevant and unique skills and competencies

Kavon J., a bright, young employee, started at Lincoln Electric as an entry-level production associate last summer. As he was onboarding, Geoff Lipnevicius, a key operations leader, took time to learn about Kavon and his peers in training. During their first site tour, Kavon mentioned his interest in the Tool & Die department and how it was a difficult skillset to develop. “I want to learn the hardest things,” Lipnevicius took away from those conversations with Kavon.

With that, Lipnevicius crafted custom plan for Kavon, considering where his first roles and placements should be so that Kavon could start to build the necessary experience and perspective to solidify that path to Tool & Die. You can guarantee that the thoughtfulness with which Lipnevicius is shaping Kavon’s path not only provides an effective, efficient path for Kavon’s development, it also serves as a source of inspiration for and loyalty to Kavon.

Take baby steps, quickly

Some people will tell you that you have to document and clearly articulate all possible career paths people could take. Nobody does that.

To start, build momentum. Pick a frontline employee who your team has confidence in, with whom your supervisor or ops manager have a decent relationship and who you would want to remain a part of your culture long-term. Just like any other process or organizational competency, you have to get reps on it. Execute purposefully and learn from it by keeping close track of how it goes and what could be better each time.

A big risk with ramping up this practice is doing it too slowly. Employees want to advance and get promoted, yes. But if they don’t, they are more likely to be realistic about the time that takes if they have visibility to a reasonable timeframe and understand the milestones and path to those advancement opportunities.

Even companies that implemented development planning as a part of their annual review cycle are realizing that waiting a full year to have a substantive discussion with high-potentials is too long. Another way to look at it is, “how much more motivated will that person be to do a great job in their first role with the company, if they know it’s critical to getting to their second or third?”

Leverage available, external resources

No need to be overwhelmed by the thought of building out necessary training, planning and development mechanisms. Resources to help build, train and educate are available in abundance, but often underused.

Machinists, for example, are one of the most in-demand roles in all of Ohio manufacturing. But our local programs to develop machining talent historically run about half full, and cohorts are cancelled regularly due to lack of enrollment. These programs, designed to be efficient and effective in teaching skills, are worth researching and leveraging in-house.

Another key factor to consider is that external training programs teach to the median, by definition. We did a study a few years ago, and the local machining programs all consistently taught 50-75% of the skills each company was seeking in a machinist. This means that each company will need to offer company-specific, on-the-job training, to accommodate information regarding unique equipment, products and customers. So external programs are effective to establish foundation and teach the basics, as therefore not tax internal resources, rather use them to finetune the details.

Play the long game

Today’s manufacturing issues, like record backlogs and struggles to hire in to key roles, exaggerate the impact of a short-term productivity hit, liking extracting an effective machine operator. And this is why business leaders hesitate to remove those people from a shift for shadowing or training purposes. Now imagine the anticipated pain of losing an operator so he can to through a four-month long machining class. Unfathomable.

The payoff can multiply in benefits, though.

China C. was an entry-level hire at Jergens, Inc. She showed promise and worked hard, so Jergens leaders invested in her by sending her to CITC to become a CNC Machinist. Once China became Jergens’ first female CNC machinist, the company continued her development, next as a phenomenal supervisor. China is now an advocate for the manufacturing community and Jergens. Think Jergens’ leadership questions their investment in China at this point? Oh, and China’s daughter works there now, too!

Embrace risky commitments

I’ve heard HR and operations heads express concern about having a conversation with a frontline employee about potential advancement paths, timing, promotions and wage progression, worrying that it will be interpreted as a company promise to that employee and regardless of the many variables. What if a person doesn’t perform well? What if the positions aren’t open? What if we don’t hit our growth goals that will create more opportunities?

Again, flip your perspective and operate from the motivation that development plans offer, and three simple keys are:

  • Be up-front about what needs to happen regarding job performance, the state of the company, etc. and what could knock things off course
  • Be open and converse regularly with how individuals and the company are progressing
  • Don’t commit to anything unlikely or infeasible

Rather, lean towards fearlessness and possibility when discussing development and advancement opportunities with employees. This may just inspire them to aspire higher in the long-term and more valuable in the short term.

With the growth manufacturing companies are experiencing and that most leaders plan to capture in the next five to 10 years, opportunities will arise for great people to step up. For those people to be ready, start offering professional development experiences now and be aggressive about it. You’ll both keep and recruit more good people.

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