The Skills Gap

Every year in the 4th Quarter Issue of the magazine, MHEDA’s Critical Impact Factors for the next year are published. This is an exciting time for me, not because I’m actively working in the industry, but because they really determine the entire road map for the next year for MHEDA. Educational events are planned around them. The editorial plan for the magazine is based around them. I plan my interview questions for the next issue, which is the Economic Forecast issue, around them. It’s cool to see what everybody is going to be talking about.

I also enjoy looking back at previous issues of the Critical Impact Factors to see which ones we’ve “solved” for lack of a better term and which ones are persistent issues. One of, if not the, most persistent issues over the years that I’ve been involved with the magazine is the skilled labor shortage. It is addressed in two separate Factors this year, Factors 2 and 6.

2) End users continue to seek and implement automated solutions driven by skilled labor shortages, minimum wage increases and a desire to reduce fleet size. Members must evaluate and understand the risks and opportunities that exist to participate in automation solutions.

6) Recruitment and retention of employees continues to challenge companies and members must create a culture that attracts top talent. Having a multi-faceted recruitment strategy along with a structured on-boarding program and professional development path is critical.

In almost any interview I’ve done in the last 6 years that was even tangentially related to recruitment, I’ve asked some variation of the question, “Do you feel that we as an industry have a messaging issue as it relates to potential career paths?” And most people agree that that is a huge part of it. But by no means is that the only issue. I’ve recently had two conversations outside of work that made me see both sides of the issue, and also gave me a renewed respect for the immense challenge that our members face.

The first was with a friend of mine. He had gone to college for one semester but dropped out. As he put it, “School was never my thing.” Unfortunately, as today’s millennials can attest, a college degree is no longer a leg up on the competition. It’s basically the bare minimum that most employers expect. So entering the workforce without a degree puts my friend at a disadvantage and he was definitely feeling it. He asked me for advice and I told him that if it were me, I’d probably go to a local technical school and get some kind of certification as a technician or mechanic. I told him about the skilled labor shortage in our industry and that as a young guy, with that certification, willing to move, he could write his own ticket. He had never considered that career path before. And when I told him how in demand he would be, he was even more excited.

I could tell as I was initially describing the potential job to him that in his head he was judging it. It was “blue collar” work and he wouldn’t make any money, etc. You all know the stereotypes. He didn’t realize a) the incredible earning potential there would be and b) that it didn’t have to be a forever job. Plenty of people I know within MHEDA have started as technicians or warehouse workers and worked their way up the business side of the company. Getting your foot in the door with one of these great companies is a great start for a very rewarding career.

Which brings me to the second conversation I had. My wife was a teacher in a very rural school district in New York for seven years. The school was so small that K-12 were in one building and the graduating class had 50 kids in a good year. And she told me that of those 50 kids more than half spent part of the day going to BOCES. I think BOCES is a New York program but the gist of it is that it’s time spent learning a trade. And in her school it was seen as a reward. Kids kept their grades up because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to go to BOCES. And I thought that was wonderful. Because where we went to high school, we had BOCES too. Only, BOCES had a stigma attached to it. It was where the supposedly less motivated kids went. Fast forward 10 years and those same kids are the ones super in-demand whereas the kids who went to $50,000 per year colleges to get BA degrees are struggling to find entry level work.

Those two things stuck with me. We definitely need to do a better job of messaging and making clear the rewards that this industry has to offer. But part of the issue is absolutely societal. As long as there is a stigma to “blue collar” work, there will be a shortage of people to perform it. And that’s really a shame.

What has your company done to combat the skills gap? I’d really love to hear from you. Send me a tweet at @MHEDA_Journal to share your story.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors