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We are kicking off the podcast with our first guest Julie Davis, Senior Director of Workforce and Industry Initiatives with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), to discuss challenges and solutions facing the US manufacturing workforce. 

Julie comes from a background of Economic Development, and engaging youth to join the manufacturing workforce, which led her to Workforce Development at the AEM. The association is broken down into segments within the heavy equipment industry including Agriculture, Forestry, Mining, and Construction. 

What you will learn:

➡️ How the pandemic shook up the labor market

➡️ What flexibility looks like in manufacturing

➡️ Benefits of training and apprenticeship programs

➡️ Importance of engaging with a variety of talent pools

➡️ Why employer branding is essential to company culture

How the Pandemic Shook Up the Labor Market

Overarching cross-industry can help put things into perspective. One of the largest contributing factors is due to a high rate of baby boomers retiring which has been accelerated due to COVID. Other factors include:

  • A decline of working-age men in the labor force 
  • 2.4 million women left the workforce in 2020
  • A decline in the total birth rate

Struggling to recruit unskilled labor?

Pre-pandemic, manufacturers struggled to find skilled workers, which has since spilled over to affect the entry-level talent pool. Around the 1930s, job ads began including job requirements intended to leave out specific groups of the labor force. Fast forward to the present day, companies are now trying to figure out, "How do we invite people in?"

To answer this frequently asked question, Julie has noticed across the board, that many job postings are written with a more masculine connotation. This is not the most inviting to attract female talent, and she suggests using terminology such as responsible or dependable. Women are not only turned off by language but they are also 40% more likely than men to not apply to a position if they do not meet one hundred percent of the job requirements. The key takeaway is to recruit with intention by using strategic vocabulary along with promoting diversity and inclusion. 

One opportunity missed by leaders of an organization is opening up the conversation to existing employees and leveraging their feedback to improve your recruiting strategies.

Beyond Wages and Benefits

Unfortunately, when it comes to solving labor challenges, there is never one answer. Based on Julie's experience she has noticed the companies saying that they're doing everything they can, are actually a little more apprehensive to adapt, whereas the real winners are the ones saying we've tried this, this, and this in an attempt to create a web of success.

One strategy that organizations tend to overlook is adjusting vacation time. Employees are more likely to leave for higher pay elsewhere, however, they are less likely to leave for a decrease in vacation time. Another underutilized resource is reevaluating the onboarding process. Convincing people to change career lanes can be a daunting task. Manufacturing is a loud and rugged environment and the key is, to be honest with your candidates, and prepare them throughout the onboarding journey to set them up for success. As Julie mentions, "You never hear someone say there was too much onboarding!"

Flexibility in Manufacturing

Now is a crucial time to get creative and engage with current employees to find out what flexibility looks like for them. Leaders should be asking themselves the following questions:

  • Should we move to a 4-day workweek to have a 3-day weekend?
  • Can we have a shift that allows parents to do child dropoff/pickup?
  • Is job-sharing an option? 

Training and Apprenticeship Programs

After conducting a survey when Julie first started at the AEM to determine "what's working?", She discovered training and apprenticeships programs were the top contenders. When it comes to launching these types of programs leaders become overwhelmed with thoughts of how much it will cost, the time it takes to get off the ground and thinking they need to do it alone. What people don't know is that you do not have to reinvent the wheel! There are various resources that can guide you through the development process including government funding, facilitators, and existing programs. Depending on what your company already has in place you should expect a 4-6 month turnaround time, however, if you are starting from scratch it could take as long as a year. 

AEM's Workforce Development Toolkit

Based on Julie's research from various credible firms such as Deloitte, she condensed best practices for recruiting and hiring into a Workforce Development Toolkit which would appeal more to busy executives that don't have time to read a 30-page report. The Workforce Development Toolkit has two versions - basic and premium.

  • Basic - This is a free version where you can view content history and set filters tailored to your specific role or industry sector
  • Premium – Work hand in hand throughout a guided experience for a small one-time fee

Community Engagement

HR professionals have been accustomed to an isolated work environment, however, they are currently facing challenges too great to go at it on their own. They must now engage more strategically whether it be through volunteerism or uniting with education partners.

Internal Engagement

Leaders are now asking human resources to perform a job they don’t have experience doing, but they need to be willing to provide HR with support by merging business strategy with talent strategy. In order to set HR up for success, departments such as marketing and sales should also be brought into the conversation. 

Target Different Talent Pools

In today's tight labor market, when you share a job posting you are no longer competing only with the manufacturer down the street but also with different career sectors and industries, which highlights the importance of getting more creative with your recruitment strategies. One factor to think about is maybe it's time to source from new talent pools you have not used before such as veterans, women, or minorities. The second chance talent pool is yet another overlooked source. Although it may hold the highest unemployment rate, it also receives the highest government investment for training programs. Many companies that have utilized second chance employees have validated they can be the most loyal employees, and it has been proven they are significantly less likely to commit another crime.

Employer Branding

Sitting down and talking with your Gen Z employees is one of your greatest resources to find out what is important to them and why they have chosen to stay at your company. Gen Z can be very specific when asking questions to a potential employer such as, "where do you stand on environmental sustainability?". People want to work with organizations whose ideas align with their personal beliefs. Many times employees leave a job once they discover the company culture does not line up with what was initially presented to them through the onboarding process.

Final Thoughts

Leaders seem to have this sense of urgency for HR to produce results, and fail to keep in mind roadblocks the HR team might be facing such as a shortage of resources or certain policy restrictions. Julie feels strongly that leaders need to be willing to make changes and team up with their human resources department to help them succeed.

Workforce Development Resources

➡️ AEM's Workforce Solutions Page

➡️ Workforce Solutions Toolkit

➡️ 2-minute Workforce Tactic Series via LinkedIn

➡️Connect with Julie on LinkedIn or via email at

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