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This article is the second piece in a series of discussions on workforce development in the post-pandemic era. To re-cap the first installment: Since workforce issues have plagued many industry sectors for years, some for decades, our “new normal” must include a focus on the people-side of the business from a strategic perspective. The overarching theme for strategic workforce development in these times is “doing more with less of everything while developing new habits.”

As I wrote in my introductory discussion (May 4, 2021, newsletter column, see link below), “Top-management and front-line leaders can shape the new workforce into the most productive, most positive, most enthusiastic group of employees they’ve ever encountered.” But, as I point out here, that starts with the rethinking of work and workers. Read on to learn why.

Hiring a capable workforce to fill openings can be most challenging in this post-pandemic era. Why? Studies have shown that employees who were furloughed or laid off in the past year or so may never return to the job or their prior line of work. They may have changed their career aspirations, or decided to retire early, or work part time in jobs they enjoy giving them more free time they came to appreciate while off work. Given time off during the past year or so has forced some to rethink many aspects of their lives, their financial needs, where they live, and whether they should take a different path, with more of a work-life balance.

However, today, from the employer’s perspective, there are employee slots to be filled and fewer people actively looking for work and/or the types of jobs they used to have. Now is the time for employers to fundamentally rethink work and workers especially in equipment-intensive businesses where reliability, availability and maintenance are keys to their success.

Here’s an example that illustrates what’s happening in this post-pandemic world of work. Home-building is setting records in many areas of the U.S. because of the pandemic. How’s that? Many employers and employees learned how work can be accomplished at home. No need to drive into the corporate palace to perform tasks that can be accomplished anywhere with good broadband access.

Moving into the post-pandemic recovery, some of those employers and employees decided that remote workers could choose where to live and fulfill all or most of their job requirements. Many employees have, thus, decided to add home offices.  Others have decided to relocate out of the big cities to more affordable, often rural, locales. Naturally, with housing-market inventory at near zero, especially in what are considered “quality of life” rural areas, home building/remodeling is booming. In fact, overall housing starts in the U.S. are at the highest level they’ve been since 2006. As a result, lumber prices have skyrocketed. A recent headline on the Fortune “Real Estate and Finance” web page put it bluntly: “‘Pure panic’: Lumber prices up a staggering 280% as builders scramble for supply.”

What’s happening in the lumber industry? The short answer is a “perfect storm.” That “storm” includes early-pandemic shutdowns of timber harvesting and sawmill shutdowns, and dumping of inventory; an unanticipated home-remodeling boom during pandemic lay-offs; a resurging mid- and post-pandemic home-building boom due to lower interest rates and employees fleeing big-city offices; and a slow to startup of the lumber manufacturing pipeline unable to fully replenish inventories. With minimal inventories at the lumber-manufacturing level, the sector is finding itself in a pull system, where just keeping up with the demand is about all that’s possible now. Of course, lumber manufacturing profits are likely soaring.

I believe the lumber shortage is going to get worse before it gets worse. Why? Equipment performance and reliability of overtaxed trucking, sawmills, and lumber-manufacturing operations, as a whole; the shortage of front-line workers and truck drivers; and increasing fuel prices will likely be the next big bug that chokes the building-materials supply chain. Increasing demand will also contribute to continuing lumber shortages and increasing lumber costs. The shortage of construction workers, in turn, also contributes to a supply-and-demand induced price increase in home construction.

Lumber, building-materials, and construction industries are finding themselves in a whole new, unanticipated, underprepared post-pandemic world. Might it be time to rethink work and workers in this supply chain?

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” seems to be the politician’s mantra as they pump huge sums of stimulus money into the U.S. economy. But that doesn’t seem to make sense with the economy actively recovering and millions of job openings that cannot be filled. We must learn how to think beyond “jobs” to what it will take to rebuild the supply chains. The jobs (old and new, alike) will be a result of balancing the post-pandemic supply chain to meet the demands of a growing economy.

The post-pandemic recovery is NOT comparable to the 2008 recession and recovery, due, primarily, to the devastating global supply-chain impact of COVID-19 coupled with young and old employees rethinking how they want to live and work. The future of work and workers can be different. Skills shortages and labor shortages have been an ever-increasing and cyclical challenge plaguing many industries. It seems schools, colleges, and universities aren’t cranking out graduates that businesses need when they need them. If they are, it’s often well after the fact.

Let’s anticipate the future of work and workers. As employers, we need to rethink the nature of jobs:  how they are designed, the skills required, and the attractiveness to new and continuing employees. As employees, we need to be open to more flexible and adaptable job assignments. Work should be rewarding to people, i.e., providing job satisfaction. Work must also be productive in ways that contribute to the bottom line of the business. Work should address the needs (and interests) of both employer and employee.

Low-paying, entry-level jobs can be tough to fill. And t’s getting tougher to do in this post-pandemic era, with the Millennial generation (born between about 1980 and 1996) comprising roughly half of the U.S. workforce (and by 2025, 75% of the global workforce). Millennials and members of subsequent generations (Gen Z and Alpha) will continue to have new or different work-life expectations that employers must address. On the other hand, if traditionally low-paying entry-level jobs in the most critical skilled job domains provide steppingstones early on and well into the future they become career building opportunities.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” sounds much too limiting for many business sectors and businesses both small and large. When we think of CAREERS we’ve burst through the “jobs, jobs, jobs” paradigm to an employment continuum. Jobs with CAREER PATHS provide incentives for on-the-job growth, employee development, and employment longevity that can benefit both the employee and the employer’s business alike. Career building is an incentive to the new employee, an opportunity for both the employee and employer, and an obligation for the employer to stick with a career development process as a centerpiece in their workforce development strategy.

Ok. If we begin rethinking work and workers, especially in the world of equipment-reliability improvement, we should fundamentally rethink the need for and structures of apprenticeship training. Think about blurring the lines between operator and maintainer, mechanical and instrumentation/controls, supervisors and team leaders, etc.. Think about “multi-skilled equipment specialists.”

In many businesses, apprenticeships have become dinosaurs, a thing of the past. That needs to change. Apprenticeship-style training delivers enormous benefits in critical manufacturing, mining, transportation, and construction equipment and process streams. Thus, it’s important to rethink ways to focus design of apprenticeship training on specific equipment and process needs of your plant or facility, rather than on traditional apprenticeship structures and Department of Labor certification. Think about ways to develop the skills, knowledge, and experience in YOUR business without providing a certification for employees to look for new work elsewhere, all built on your training dollar.

Consider this: Coupling job-performance requirements (duties and tasks) with on-line learning, community college/tech school classes, and efficient and effective on-job training (OJT) can do more to build workforce knowledge and skills (in a relatively short period of time) than traditional OJT does. Rather than refer to this approach as “apprenticeship training,” reframe the process as workforce development targeted to specific areas of need in YOUR business.

Next in this series of discussions, we’ll focus on the use of targeted incentives and bonuses, pay for applied skills compensation strategies, and the role of strategic workforce development leadership.TRR

Click Here To Read The First (May 4, 2021) Installment In This Discussion Series

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, workforce issues, leadership, training and qualification, skills development