Fostering employee engagement in manufacturing

Attracting Generation Y to work in manufacturing is key to filling the talent gap in the United States. A strategy for engagement is crucial to recruitment and retention.

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By Debra Dailey and Rebecca Schwartz

Edition 2 – February 2013 Pages 12-14

Tags: engagement • retention • manufacturing • gen y

The manufacturing sector employs one of the largest workforces in the US and includes a diverse group of industries such as food and beverage, wood products, primary metals, fabricated metal products, transportation equipment, furniture, and chemicals. In fact, manufacturing supports an estimated 18.6 million jobs in the US—about one in six private sector jobs – and nearly 12 million Americans (or nine percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing. 1

The US is currently the world’s largest manufacturing economy, producing 21 percent of global manufactured products.2 However, today’s business landscape presents a number of challenges that jeopardize this leadership position, many of which are a result of the rapid globalization of manufacturing and the widespread growth of digital technologies and automated manufacturing processes.3 One of the most pressing problems facing manufacturers is a significant talent gap, the result of an ever-increasing shortage of high-skilled workers coupled with the rapid aging of the industry’s current workforce.

In fact, a 2011 survey of nearly 1,100 US-based manufacturers found that 67% face a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers, translating into as many as 600,000 jobs that are going unfilled.4 Survey respondents indicated that access to a highly skilled, flexible workforce will be the most important factor in their future effectiveness and success, ranked above factors such as new product innovation and increased market share. The extent of this shift toward a more high-level, skills-based industry is evident when you consider that only 41 percent of today’s manufacturing workforce is directly engaged in production – the remaining 59 percent includes technicians, physicists, chemists, IT staff, and business professionals, to name a few.5

Part of the answer to this problem may lie with the recruitment and effective engagement of workers from Generation Y, who will soon constitute a significant proportion of the workforce. In fact, by 2025 an estimated 40 to 60 percent of US workers will come from Generation Y and younger generations.6 Attracting Gen Y workers to manufacturing is no easy task, however, because manufacturing jobs have the unfortunate reputation for being low-paid, monotonous, dangerous, dirty, and offering few opportunities for independent thinking. In reality, in recent years many hands-on production jobs have become automated, leading to layoffs of some of the industry’s less-skilled workers. Even as more high-skilled jobs have become available, ironically the ongoing mass layoffs have tarnished the sector’s image and its ability to provide long-term job security.

To succeed in attracting Gen Y workers, manufacturing needs to implement a system of talent and work management that addresses the unique expectations of this generation, while still attending to the needs of the larger workforce. In particular, it is absolutely crucial that manufacturing organizations strive to promote work environments and systems that encourage employee engagement. The Gallup Organization defines engaged employees as those who “work with a passion and feel a profound connection to their company” and “drive innovation and move the organization forward.”7 The relationship between engagement and performance at the organizational level is substantial and highly generalizable across all industries; in fact, in 2009 Gallup studied employee engagement in 152 organizations across 44 industries and found that employee engagement was positively associated with better customer loyalty, increased profitability and productivity, improved quality (i.e. fewer product defects), reduced employee turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents.8

Fostering engagement should clearly be a top priority for manufacturing organizations; however, before any comprehensive strategies are implemented, it is important for employers to address some of the more basic job stresses and engagement issues associated with working in this sector – particularly for those workers engaged directly in production. According to one study of the industry, the major stressors for these employees include high job demands, low job control, low social support, the physical, chemical and ergonomic characteristics of the work environment, and work patterns/schedule.9 Some of these concerns are realistically outside of the organization’s locus of control; however, employers can play a very significant role in addressing a few of these key areas. Health and safety issues, in particular, are some of the foremost concerns for employees working directly in production and can be relatively easy problems for managers to address.

Occupational health and safety in manufacturing

Occupational safety is a major concern in the manufacturing industry. Production line workers are often required to perform challenging and repetitive physical tasks, and they may frequently be exposed to chemical hazards, dangerous machines, and excessive noise levels. In 2010, the sector reported 333 deaths and 501,800 non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses, with more than half requiring days away from work, job transfer, or restriction.10 In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 “the manufacturing industry sector accounted for over 30 percent of all private industry occupational illness cases, resulting in the highest illness incidence rate among all industry sectors.”11 The leading causes of death and injury in manufacturing were contact with objects and equipment, transportation incidents, and falls. Overexertion and repetitive motion are also significant sources of injury in this sector, often leading to musculoskeletal disorders.

While many employers have made significant strides in improving workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other agencies should assist employers in their continued efforts to make the workplace safer. This is especially important in the context of today’s challenging and competitive business environment, since experience has shown that reducing injuries and illnesses can improve productivity and reduce workers’ compensation and healthcare costs.12

There are a few basic strategies that all manufacturing companies should incorporate into their work environments in order to keep employees safe and working at their most productive levels.13 Ergonomic workstations that can be individually tailored to each worker and do not require an unnatural posture are absolutely essential, and workers should be taught and encouraged to utilize proper lifting techniques. Furthermore, work areas should be free of clutter and debris, and hazards should always be clearly indicated. Finally, machines must have proper safeguards in place, and workers should be provided with any necessary personal protective equipment like goggles, gloves, and hearing protection. Only when the workforce’s basic need for health and safety is addressed can an organization begin to contemplate the implementation of strategies and systems that support high levels of employee engagement.

Strategies for engagement

Recent research suggests that a specific type of work and talent management system – one that supports high-involvement work practices – can develop employee engagement and ultimately bring about enhanced organizational performance.14 Manufacturing companies should also take note of the specific needs of Generation Y if they wish to recruit (and retain) employees from this particular cohort. For instance, Gen Y workers typically place high value on long-term career development, finding a sense of purpose and meaning in work, having access to mentors, work-life flexibility, a tech-savvy work environment, and open social networks. Following is a discussion of the strategies that several leading organizations – including Deloitte and the Ivey Business Journal – have identified as being critical for workforce engagement in the manufacturing sector, with special emphasis on their application to Generation Y employees.

Training, education, and career development: Developing employees’ skills via training and education is needed to drive innovation and productivity, and to give workers the ability to access employment and advancement opportunities. Education should go beyond the traditional classroom; however, real-life experiences and mentoring opportunities also provide the learning that employees need to master a job. In addition, it is especially important for Gen Y employees that they have opportunities for career mobility and are able to map out a long-term plan for their career development.

Job control: When employees have the power to make decisions that are important to their performance and to the quality of their work life, they feel more accountable and connected to the organization. Power can involve giving employees relatively small opportunities for decision-making, or allowing them to have final authority and accountability for decisions and their outcomes. The Generation Y workforce should be encouraged to not only provide input regarding what is meaningful for them at work, but also to get involved firsthand in designing the ideal workplace.

Connectedness: It is important for all employees – but especially for Gen Y – that they feel connected to their co-workers, to the organization as a whole, and to a larger sense of purpose. In addition, when it comes to performance, it is essential that manufacturing companies make it easy for people to connect with the resources, tools, and guidance they need to do great work. In particular, Generation Y workers embrace the opportunity to engage in knowledge sharing through social networking, discussion boards and blogs, and should be encouraged to do so.

Transparency and rewards: The more transparent managers can make the organization’s operations, the more effectively employees can contribute to the firm’s success and understand the impact of their work. Managers should strive to provide information pertaining to output, revenues, and profitability – specifically as they relate to an employee’s particular area of work – so workers can influence these outcomes by adjusting levels of discretionary effort. The idea of corporate transparency goes hand-in-hand with offering rewards for those employees who do choose to expend extra effort. For Gen Y employees, it is also important that rewards systems encourage efficiency, creativity, and innovation.

In conclusion, improving employee engagement is absolutely essential for any manufacturing company endeavoring to overcome the talent shortage and remain competitive in today’s business environment. There are several strategies that can be implemented in order to achieve engagement-related outcomes; however, organizations need strong work systems and exceptional leaders to support these practices. Once organizations recognize the link between strategic business objectives and engagement and embrace these strategies, long-term success for companies in the manufacturing industry will truly become attainable. W&P

About the Authors

Debra Dailey

Debra Dailey is vice president, human capital solutions & outcomes, Sodexo ‘ToLive’, based in the USA. She is responsible for leading the strategic development and management of human capital and workplace solutions for Sodexo’s corporate clients. She holds a BA and MA from Central Michigan University, and BSN in Nursing.
Email: [email protected]


Rebecca Schwartz

Rebecca Schwartz is a research fellow with Sodexo ‘ToLive’, based in the USA. She recently conducted extensive research on potential workplace trends for 2013, and authored a detailed report that was used to guide Sodexo’s 2013 Workplace Trends Report. She holds a Masters in Public Health Administration from George Washington University.
Email: [email protected]


1 National Association of Manufacturers. (2011). A Manufacturing Renaissance: Four Goals for Economic Growth.

2 Ibid.

3 Deloitte. (2012). The Future of Manufacturing: Opportunities to drive economic growth.

4 Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute. (2011). Boiling point? The skills gap in US manufacturing.

5 Deloitte. (2007). Managing the Talent Crisis in Manufacturing: Strategies to Attract and Engage Generation Y.

6 Ibid.

7 Gallup. (2009). Q12 Meta-Analysis.

8 Ibid.

9 Watanabe, M. (2003). Stress management in manufacturing industries. Journal of Occupational Health, 45(1), 1-6.

10 Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011). Workplace Injuries and Illnesses – 2010.

11 Ibid.

12 The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2010). Musculoskeletal Disorders in Manufacturing.

13 Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (2012). Industry-Specific Resources: Manufacturing.

14 Konrad, A. (2006). Engaging employees through high-involvement work practices. Ivey Business Journal, 1-6.

15 Deloitte. (2007). Managing the Talent Crisis in Manufacturing: Strategies to Attract and Engage Generation Y.


Editor’s footnote: This article is more about ‘work’ than about ‘place’, and an example of future articles aimed at helping us all to better understand current management thinking around issues such as ‘engagement’. What makes it even more interesting is the focus on manufacturing – a sector often forgotten by ‘workplace strategists’. Work&Place Linkedin Group.


… manufacturing jobs have the unfortunate reputation for being low-paid, monotonous, dangerous, dirty, and offering few opportunities for independent thinking


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