Bridging the Gap: Helping Young Professionals Develop into Effective Leaders

By Lara Copeland, assistant editor, The American Mold Builder

In many ways, the manufacturing industry is booming in the US. Operations have been working toward development and growth and are now beginning to enter new markets with plans to expand facilities, but there seems to be one important element in insufficient supply: the workers.

According to the American Mold Builders Association (AMBA), many segments of the manufacturing industry are plagued by inadequate workforce development, and American mold builders are no different. With additional baby boomers continuing to retire every day, it is essential for the next generation to move up into those positions and for younger generations to continue entering the field.

However, the manufacturing industry is still battling the misguided perception of dirty shop floors and dangerous, low-paying work leaving some businesses with job openings sitting unfilled. This misconception is at least partly to blame for the lack of young Americans entering the field and often opting to join the tech sector instead.

A recent Deloitte Insights report highlights the fact that over half of the potential two million jobs that will become available over the next decade in manufacturing will most likely remain empty due to a skills shortage. Furthermore, according to Deloitte projections, $454 billion of the manufacturing gross domestic product is at risk in 2028 alone. Considering this potential, industry leaders are left without the ability to capitalize on growth opportunities since the talent is lacking. That is, unless something is done to intervene.

Championing young professionals

To further support the continued development of the mold manufacturing workforce, AMBA launched the Emerging Leaders Network for young professionals in early 2019 to forge connections, create mentorship opportunities and offer educational resources to under-40 employees at AMBA member companies.

“The AMBA provides a sense of community to its members, and the intention of the network is to supply that same sense of belonging, growth and support to its 100+ members,” explained Rachael Pfenninger, AMBA director of strategic execution and network liaison. “We have a responsibility to our members to help drive their continued success. Offering a program like this provides current growth opportunities and continued success in the future.”

Attracting skilled workers satisfies one level of growing a business, but developing future leaders helps to ensure its continuation. Providing constant support throughout an employee’s career can provide manufacturers with the competitive advantage of meeting customer demands while developing their business and employees. Continuously developing existing employees, as opposed to recruiting new workers with advanced skills, may prove to help manufacturers be more efficient.

Shaping the next group of leaders

Focusing on multiple types of molding, HS Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a mold manufacturing business founded over 50 years ago by Harold Steele. Recently this AMBA member company enrolled several employees in the Emerging Leaders “Get Lean” series for young professionals. This project-based application series combined industry knowledge and critical thinking into six, one-hour sessions.

Continuous Improvement Consultant Matin Karbassioon (CONNSTEP) coached the 40-and-under AMBA member attendees through the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of lean manufacturing principles for this unique series. This included deep dives into problem-solving methodology, visual management, the importance and method of value stream thinking, and more. Participants were able to explore the tenants of these principles, how they can be applied in the manufacturing environment and what opportunities exist for employees at any level to think differently about existing challenges, drive process improvement and create financial benefit for their employers.

With a large group of younger employees recently hired on, HS Tool & Die’s General Manager Phil Tanis said the company is starting to hand over some leadership roles in all its departments internally. “We have been actively involved in getting young people in here, growing them and keeping that moving forward,” he said. “They have really stepped up and taken leadership roles.”

With his company’s perpetual focus on continuous improvement, Tanis emphasized that “this is an exciting time for us.” All the managers have had in-depth training, and HS strives to get that training passed on to that next group of leaders. “We really want that next level of leader to be able to follow through, give their input and get an understanding of everything from basic wastes to root cause analysis,” he added.

As former director of continuous improvement and quality assurance, Tanis is not new to the idea. Between certifications, classes and assisting with General Motors’ lean assessments, he has been engaged in continuous improvement for ten years. “Continuous improvement is easily associated with production-type work, and our industry has been too slow to really jump on and adapt to true continuous improvement,” he explained. “Shops that are not actively looking and developing people and their continuous improvement efforts and their understanding of it are simply going to fall behind,” he noted.

Delving into “Get Lean”

Each session of the “Get Lean” series explored a lean manufacturing principle and included exercises that enabled the attendees to walk away with the ability to practically apply each principle learned within their own facility. “I’m really glad AMBA put this series together because it’s coming from that level where, as an industry, we’re promoting continuous improvement – and that’s important,” Tanis explained.

HS’s employees who participated in the series include four team members in the mold manufacturing arena. Joe Bastien, boring mill operator, said he was excited to gain a deeper understanding of lean manufacturing and to see how other shops utilize lean tools.  “The course served as a good overview of what lean manufacturing offers,” he added.

“They all really enjoyed it,” Tanis reported. “One employee jokingly told us it provided him the opportunity to make sure the rest of us were doing it right in the first place.” All joking aside, Tanis said the employees were all actively participating in the series. “They now realize how to pick projects – considering how things are identified, how they directly affect them, how and why to pick a project, and just being able to follow it through,” he continued.

Rob Glerum, lead moldmaker at HS Inc., said he was hoping to gain a better understanding of the 5S principles along with value stream mapping and ways to streamline non-value-added work. “Not only did I receive this information, but I also learned ways to integrate the principles into our work area,” he reported. “I think this series gave us a lot of transparency into the business aspects of lean, and I appreciated the understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ for what we are doing at HS Inc., and in the industry in general.”

Todd Westgate, machinist in the EDM Carbon department at HS Inc., acknowledged how much this series taught him about becoming a better employee and great leader. “Using the tools we have learned about will show us ways in which we can continue to improve our processes so we can strive to be the best.”

Future prospects

Continuous Improvement Consultant Matin Karbassioon (CONNSTEP) coached the 40-and-under AMBA member attendees through the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of lean manufacturing principles for the Emerging Leaders “Get Lean” series.

Although the “Get Lean” series explored a number of key lean manufacturing principles, registrants focused primarily on takeaways that helped identify significant areas of waste and the strategic points of view necessary to begin addressing those areas. Key areas of waste discussed by participants included overproduction, waiting on material and communication, incomplete or missing data, engineering miscalculation and more.

Now that the series is complete, Tanis said each participant has projects to work on, such as those identified above, that will be finished to completion. The plan is to then have each of these leaders assist in training others in their departments as well as other department leaders. “Expanding our depth, passing on knowledge and continuing to establish that leader role is imperative,” he stated.

Furthermore, Tanis is excited about the Emerging Leaders’ peer group. He would also be interested in education on the basics of business. “It would be great to see something that helps them understand the innerworkings of business – like knowledge about monitoring finances, for example.” He continued, “General employee topics would be of great value too, like dealing with conflict, hiring practices and workplace environment.

Pfenninger agreed wholeheartedly with the team at HS Inc. “Younger employees are motivated differently than the generations that have come before them,” she remarked. “They want to be a part of the bigger picture, and they want to contribute to and have input into projects that impact the bottom line. This is why every program we offer strives to provide additional tools that enable these members – regardless of age and experience – to meaningfully contribute to the projects in which they participate.”

In addition to partaking in the series through the Emerging Leaders Network, the company looks for other opportunities to connect with the under-40 group. “We support employees learning, whether it’s through training at community colleges, taking classes toward a plastics degree from Ferris State or those who want an engineering degree at Grand Valley State University,” Tanis said. As big supporters of learning, HS Inc., has a tuition assistance program in place, “and this benefits us and the employee mutually, he added. “Harold Steele, the name behind the company, always commented on growing people and that certainly is continuing.”