How to Prepare for the Upcoming Manufacturing Renaissance

May 30, 2017 / Current News

By Barbara T. Nelles, BedTimes Magazine

In these post-recessionary times, with many hoping to see a U.S. manufacturing rebirth, the moment is right to retool recruitment and retention practices for your factory floor.

  1. How do you attract mechanically inclined millennials to your machine maintenance crew?
  2. What is the best way to replace retiring equipment operators and technicians whose skills your company has depended on for years?
  3. How do you make certain rank-and-file workers are motivated to stick around for the long term and that their skills remain up to date?

Many in the bedding industry are asking themselves these questions. They have come to find that in an improving economy, poaching experienced staff from the competition isn’t sustainable. For employers, and for the mattress industry as a whole, to prosper and grow, its talent pool must grow, too.

BedTimes spoke with a cross section of mattress manufacturers and other industry members, both on the record and off, about staffing issues, especially for the factory floor. Most confirmed that it’s a scramble to fill open positions for key roles and to hold onto those employees.

“Labor shortages and labor retention are issues that are talked about constantly around the world in manufacturing,” says Paul Block, vice president of sales strategy and product planning for Global Systems Group, the machinery division of Carthage, Missouri-based Leggett & Platt Inc. “We need to raise awareness and open the conversation.”

BedTimes tries to do that here. We don’t have all the answers, but here are some observations and ideas from within and outside of the bedding industry on how the mattress manufacturing industry can and should attract a new generation of workers to its ranks.

Skills gap or training lack?

Google “skills gap” and you’ll see a flood of news stories beginning around 2011 and continuing through today. The doom and gloom about America’s underskilled labor pool makes for good headlines, and observers have been painting the situation as dire since the end of the Great Recession.

In a 2015 report, “Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing,” the Washington, D.C.-based trade group the Manufacturing Institute says 2 million production jobs will go unfilled in the next decade because workers lack the right skills, and 75% of manufacturing executives say the skills gap is hampering growth, productivity and the adoption of new technologies.

But, Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Philadelphia-based Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, will have none of it. He’s a frequent speaker and debunks the idea of the skills gap in his 2012 book, “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.”

Cappelli urges employers, especially those in the manufacturing sector, to take responsibility for investing in employee training and development, and he provides cogent advice on getting those open positions filled.

For starters, Cappelli advises employers to ask themselves five questions:

  • No. 1: Do you consider only candidates who’ve done virtually the same job you’re hiring for? It’s called the Home Depot view of the hiring process—filling a job vacancy as you would if searching the hardware aisle for the precise replacement part to fix your washing machine. The applicant must have the exact experience and qualifications of the previous employee. This sharply narrows your pool of applicants, and you may not get the best person for the job. Instead, hire people with basic skills and the right attitude, and give them a 90-day probationary period to see if they have the ability to do the job with some ramp-up time.
  • No. 2: Are you using hiring software? With resume-scanning software and prescreening questionnaires, it’s likely you’ll eliminate lots of qualified applicants. This is especially true when job descriptions detail unreasonably long lists of required skills and experience. The resumes of qualified candidates who happen to lack the most trivial or easily learned skills may never make it to your inbox.
  • No. 3: Is it just too difficult to decide? Thanks to plentiful internet-based recruitment tools, you may be over searching when filling open positions. If there are more applicants than you bargained for, avoid the tendency to keep searching until you find the perfect candidate.
  • No. 4: Do you routinely rule out the unemployed, the underemployed and older workers? Don’t disregard these categories of able applicants who may have the skills, temperament and proven track record you need.
  • No. 5: Are you paying a fair wage? When was the last time you increased your hourly rates? Check the current International Sleep Products Association’s “Mattress Industry Production Wage and Management Compensation Survey,” as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to see how your company’s pay scale stacks up against average wages across the industry and the country. If candidates are turning down job offers or if you regularly lose employees to less strenuous service sector jobs, it’s time to rethink your payroll. (The ISPA wage survey is available free of charge to ISPA members. For more information, see story to the left or visit

Question No. 1 is arguably the biggest obstacle among manufacturers looking to fill vacant medium and higher skill jobs. But, post-recession, with so many employers looking to “hire in” highly specific skills, it’s no wonder many come up short-handed, according to Cappelli and other employment experts.

Many companies cite high employee attrition as the reason they can’t afford to invest in training recruits or bringing in  new blood.

The manufacturing sector, in particular, has backed off from providing work-based training programs. Yet, a generation ago, most manufacturers ran apprentice programs, Cappelli says. Yes, those apprentices were expected to spend their careers with the company and, today, there is no such expectation.

But, if industry does not invest in attracting and developing new talent, who will keep tomorrow’s manufacturing plants at peak production?

Nurturing new recruits

Since classroom learning is both insufficient (and largely unavailable) for preparing students to take on a manufacturing job, employers should work with schools to create hybrid learning opportunities that include on-the-job experience, Cappelli says.

Some companies have successfully tackled the recruitment training process by developing their own in-house training programs. One company, Bloomington, Illinois-based Mechanical Devices, was unable to fill machinist positions so it created a 10-week training program at its plant and 16 of 24 trainees accepted to the program made it to graduation and were hired.

A trucking company in Salt Lake City used a shared training program model. When it couldn’t hire enough drivers, it set up a driving school at its truck yards and offered a job to anyone who could complete the training. Trainees took the course on their own time without compensation. Over an 18-month period, the program graduated 440 drivers.

Another option—formalized apprenticeship programs—may make sense for the bedding industry, especially for the technicians tasked with maintaining and repairing industrial sewing equipment. There is a dual benefit: Apprentices don’t have to pay up front for their training, and employers benefit because they pay apprentices less than the value of their work. At the end of the training, apprentices have gained the specific skills they need to do the job. These programs can be created in conjunction with a local community college or technical school.

Partnering with community colleges

Many companies are partnering with the public sector at the state and local level, especially in the development of training and retraining programs offered at increasingly popular community colleges.

  • Ten years ago, at Reading Area Community College in the Rust Belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, area employers and high schools partnered to create the Schmidt Technology and Training Center. The goal was to replace a quarter of the region’s manufacturing workforce set to retire in the coming decade and remove the stigma associated with manufacturing jobs, according to a story at Today, graduates have their pick of employment among the region’s 500 manufacturing companies that make everything from batteries to surgical supplies, with starting wages of $20 to $30 per hour, plus benefits.
  • When Erlangen, Germany-based engineering company Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine manufacturing facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, it received 10,000 applicants for 800 posts but found that less than 15% of candidates could pass a required reading, writing and math skills test. In 2011, Siemens established an apprenticeship program for area high school seniors comprised of four years of on-the-job training, in addition to classwork at a nearby community college. Program graduates earned an associate’s degree, incurred no student debt and landed jobs paying about $50,000 per year.
  • Machinery maker John Deere, headquartered in Moline, Illinois, works with a number of community colleges around the country to offer a curriculum that trains technicians for its dealer network. The company donates farm equipment to the schools for training purposes, and students get hands-on work experience by being sponsored by a nearby John Deere dealership. Students work for roughly half the program and most graduate in two years with a job offer in hand. Starting salaries average just less than $40,000.