By Susan Bloom

In today's high-tech environment, manufacturers and electrical distributors struggle to find the skilled labor that their operations now require.

Author and former Governor of Vermont Madeleine Kunin once stated that "a skilled worker, regardless of the job description, remains a treasure."

This has never been truer than in today's high-tech business environment.

An Associated Press article recently posted on tEDmag.com discussed the need for more skilled manufacturing workers, noting that "more and more factory jobs now demand more education, technical know-how, or specialized skills," with manufacturing workers increasingly needed to "run, operate, and troubleshoot computer-directed machinery (including robots), develop software, and maintain complex websites." Similarly, distributors appear to be increasingly in need of individuals with some kind of engineering/technical experience.

tED magazine recently reached out to several of our own industry's manufacturers and distributors, who confirmed the existence of a skills gap and the difficulty in filling roles in today's increasingly tech-demanding environment. Following, they share their thoughts on how the requirements of manufacturing and operations roles have changed over time, and how they're working to address and bridge the skills gap.

A Need for New Capabilities
"Our needs for unskilled and mid-skilled labor have shifted over the years and, while we still have many positions that fall into these categories, today most are assisted by technology," confirmed Beverly Propst, senior vice president of Human Resources at Graybar. "The demands and requirements of the job are different than they were years ago -- in some cases, certain job duties have significantly changed from the way they were done in the past while others have been eliminated altogether."

It's a reality which manufacturer LEDVANCE is also experiencing. According to Graham Wark, head of LEDVANCE's North American manufacturing, "both manufacturing and our SYLVANIA lighting products have become more high-tech, resulting in the need for new capabilities among employees in our factories and distribution centers," he said. Specifically, "our assembly lines are becoming more and more advanced in order to be more efficient, which requires individuals with the right skill sets to operate and maintain the machinery. In our manufacturing plants, we're increasingly looking for talented individuals with robotics and electrical coding experience as well as candidates with an Associate's degree in the mechanical or electrical disciplines," shared Wark, who noted that the company's addition of automated forklifts to its factories has also created a demand for individuals who are skilled in programming such equipment.

At East Dubuque, Illinois-based distributor Crescent Electric Supply, vice president of marketing Bob Settle also confirms the existence of a skills gap. "Among the many areas where new or enhanced skills are needed in the distributor space is in e-commerce," Settle said. "As distributors develop strategies to embrace customers online and deal with threats from retailers like Amazon, the need for candidates with e-Commerce experience will be vital – either in-house or from third parties.  This need goes far beyond the traditional IT role and isn't a skill set that's typically found in an electrical distribution firm," he confirmed.

Settle said that as the technology embedded in new products keeps increasing, the need for enhanced knowledge and skills in that realm continues to grow as well, particularly as it relates to digital control systems associated with LED lighting projects as well as products involving the IoT. "Digital lighting controls offer tremendous benefits over traditional systems but are more complex and much more of a solution sell and there's a definite learning curve associated with this technology," he said. "IoT is much more than a buzz word, but most people have difficulty explaining it in simple terms. Distributors who are involved with automation and control products have more history with connected devices, but everyone in the distributor space will have to become knowledgeable as IoT products become more and more pervasive," Settle said.

According to LEDVANCE's Wark, "we're finding it difficult to fill these new roles because we're competing against other manufacturers for the same talent pool. Other manufacturers in other industries in our local areas are also using advanced methods that require these new skill sets." Wark confirmed that the impact of this hiring challenge can be felt on the entity's operational efficiency. "Hypothetically speaking, if we're running a line on third shift and require a changeover but don't have the right team member on board to reprogram the assembly line until the following shift, that results in lost productivity," he explained.

Supporting Transformational Growth                               
Our experts agreed that training remains an important means of addressing this misalignment. "It isn't just about finding the right person with the right skills, but also about providing them with the unique training required for our specific applications," Wark said.

"Graybar invests significantly in technology and we provide development opportunities so that our employees can keep their job duties and knowledge current with new and critical skills," Propst concurred.  "It's not uncommon for us to have challenges recruiting, particularly in geographic locations experiencing low unemployment or in areas where there's high competition for warehouse talent. We address this with targeted recruitment plans and always look for ways to highlight the unique value of working for Graybar."

Making available employment opportunities and the industry appealing to potential candidates is a popular strategy across the board. "In order to hire experienced employees, we know we need to offer attractive compensation and diverse benefits packages which can include a 401K with matching options, health benefits for spouses and partners, tuition reimbursement, and adoption assistance, etc.," Wark shared. "Another thing we promote to attract the next generation of American factory workers is that the lighting industry is going through an evolution—with the advancements in LED technology, lighting is now advanced, modern, and high-tech. We're a start-up with over 100 years of experience and we're shaping the global lighting industry, which is an exciting movement to be a part of."

Propst noted that while Graybar continues to recruit for technical skills, it also recruits for softer skills such as adaptability to change, willingness to learn, and passion for the job, all characteristics which will enhance a candidate's likelihood of success in an evolving industry.

Despite the difficulties of addressing current voids, our experts expressed optimism in the outcome. "Finding skilled applicants to fill these jobs may be a challenge, but the talent is out there," confirmed Settle, who suspects that in many cases, his organization will need to look outside of the distribution industry to fill the gaps.

At LEDVANCE, Wark sees the current mismatch as an opportunity for transformational growth. "Some may feel that the increased use of automation in our factories is a threat to the American worker, but actually it's enabling us to train our current workforce on advanced new skills and hire those with new capabilities," he said. "This evolution is creating a more experienced and modern workforce for our company."

---

Bloom is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.