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How Education Can Help Manufacturers and their Workforce Succeed Post-COVID-19

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In just under two months, the COVID-19 pandemic has touched every facet of American business and spared no industry, including manufacturing. Even as some companies shifted production lines to generate critical supplies needed to fight the pandemic, the U.S. faced record-breaking unemployment numbers for April.

But as we begin to emerge from this crisis, it’s likely that the manufacturing industry will help lead the charge. Although we may see some federal, state and local guidelines raise or lower social distancing measures, one thing is certain: As more people begin to leave their homes and resume some of their previous activities, the need will arise for products and services provided by manufacturers across many sectors.

Prior to the pandemic, manufacturing witnessed a growing skills gap that led to more than 500,000 unfilled jobs in recent years. As U.S. business ramps back up and people return to work, that skills gap will not disappear — it will remain an issue the manufacturing industry must deal with, particularly as older workers retire or switch jobs away from production lines. 

To address these challenges and invest in their future, companies like Lockheed Martin, Stryker and Huntington Ingalls have created strong employee education programs to offer employees access to higher education and upskilling opportunities. For each of these industry leaders, the investments in their workforces remain a high priority — Stryker even pays up to the full amount of an undergraduate or graduate degree.

“Leaders are facing talent shortages and skills gaps in cybersecurity, data analytics, lean Six Sigma and other important areas that are critical for propelling their companies forward,” said Mark Fields, member of InStride’s Advisory Board and former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company. “By creating job pathways for their employees through access to targeted degree programs, they can address these challenges head-on and help them achieve their top-line growth objectives.”

This emphasis on education in the manufacturing sector is relatively new, but it’s clear the trend is not disappearing any time soon, even in the wake of COVID-19. Providing employees with a pathway to education remains crucial for companies to retain and upskill their workers to fuel progress across the industry.

More than ever, large companies must take the time to invest in their workforces by providing access to education, knowledge development and upskilling. Tuition assistance programs, typically only used by 1-2 percent of employees who have access to them, are not enough. Companies should create tailored, strategic approaches to employee education that are designed to positively impact their bottom line.

By tapping into an education program that helps meet each company’s specific needs, industry leaders can cultivate a pipeline of talented, dedicated and skilled workers. To develop this pipeline and accelerate the upskilling process, companies would be well-served to create strategic education programs, keeping each stage of the talent recruitment and retention funnel in mind.

Recruiting Comes First

The first step for attracting smart, driven people into any workforce pipeline is recruitment. However, manufacturing jobs have often been viewed as less than glamorous by those unfamiliar with their extraordinary contributions to the U.S. economy. According to a Deloitte report, manufacturing ranked last as a career choice among people ages 19 to 33. Additionally, only 30 percent of parents would encourage their child to pursue a job within the manufacturing industry.

Manufacturing plays a significant role in the global economy, as we have clearly seen during this pandemic. Manufacturing can be defined by its successes as a source of innovation, encompassing markets critical to national security and for providing high-paying frontline jobs. However, many young people remain unaware of the industry’s contributions on their own.

Today’s younger workforce finds companies that offer opportunities for career growth, personal development, education and advancement very attractive. An Oregon State University study found that millennials place high value on professional growth. Similarly, according to a study by Deloitte, about eight in 10 millennials say that on-the-job training, continuous professional development and formal training led by employers are important to help them perform their best. Central to these sentiments is the opportunity to learn and advance through education.

In addition to the business benefit, strategic education programs are particularly attractive to younger workers who are increasingly concerned about loans. Student debt is now the second-largest category of consumer debt after mortgages. Because of this, many students say they cannot afford to go to college and express interest in earning a degree while they work.

Upskilling is Next

Upskilling and employee retention go hand-in-hand because employees who are provided educational opportunities for career advancement through upskilling are happier and stay with a company for longer.

Companies that make education accessible to their workers and place a strong emphasis on career development will be better positioned to attract and retain talent. According to a Bain study commissioned by InStride, up to 70 percent of employees say they are more likely to start a job and stay with an employer who offers educational opportunities. Similarly, 80 percent of people who started college, but have been unable to finish their degree, are also interested in pursuing their education while working, according to the study.

Once the industry begins to pick up again, manufacturing CEOs will need to consider and create strategic education programs that supersede the traditional training and tuition assistance programs of the last several decades. Companies should focus on designing programs that link learner outcomes to business objectives.

As we emerge from the pandemic together, one thing is clear: Manufacturing CEOs need to create the infrastructure for the next generation of workers to join their companies now, and in the near future. They must prioritize their talent development strategy to not only remain competitive, but also grow. A key to their success is the power of strategic enterprise education initiatives.

 Vivek Sharma is the CEO of InStride, a strategic enterprise education company. He is an adjunct professor of data science at the University of Southern California and an independent board director for JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU).

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