How to Tackle the Labor Shortage and Training Issues

Quality management is a task that needs to be directed from the top down - with managers and supervisors ensuring that employees have the necessary skills to be productive members of the team.

During the past decade, quality issues as a part of good business operations have become a top concern for custom and captive moldmakers and molders. The relationship between OEMs and custom moldmaker/molders is now an absolute partnership. Large OEMs - specifically, the medical, automotive and computer industries - adopted the ISO 9001 philosophy of manufacturing with training as they began seeking greater market share for their products. They recognized that the quality of their products could be no better than the quality of the products' component parts.

Quality Management Systems

Since customer and cost problems usually cross both functional and organizational boundaries, the challenge for today's managers and their management systems is to identify and solve such problems faster and more effectively. A good quality management plan describes how a company must achieve full customer satisfaction while producing at the most economical cost. There are four management systems that you can explore: total quality management, employee involvement (and training), just-in-time inventory control and statistical process control.

Employees need to learn how organizations that implement and maintain these systems have a strategic edge over their competitors. Managers and supervisors - through senior management leadership - must offer employees an interdisciplinary blend of interpersonal communication skills, procedural strategies and theories of best performance practices. Employees should rehearse performance strategies in role-playing and then implement what they have learned at a particular process. They also should learn about the ethical, legal and practical dilemmas that organizations face as they address such issues as changing worker values, reasonable accommodations for specific limitations of workers, effective compensation practices, leadership development and competition for qualified workers. Since these are issues that every manager faces, this plan/system in human resources is geared to anyone who leads or manages.

ISO quality certification, meanwhile, is a vital part of doing business - locally as well as globally. With a final draft of revisions to the ISO 9001 standard released December 2000, processors, moldmakers and other companies in the plastic supply chain will need to adjust operations accordingly. A big change in the standard is that senior management - CEOs and presidents included - must assume responsibility for their company's quality programs as well as for continuous quality improvement. Understanding what these revisions entail and how they will affect operations is vital to the complete development of a business plan - especially since ISO 9001 is a baseline process to such requirements as the automakers' QS-9000 standard and the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices. Business trends and business plans change, of course, but some factors are consistent, such as the training of employees and the impact that the ISO 9001 standard will have in determining which companies grow and prosper and which do not.

Understanding these issues and what they mean for a business is an important first step on the long haul to profitability and survival.

Competency Gaps Among Graduates

National surveys of business owners cited that the most important business issue is improving schools and training young people for work. The results of the surveys and workshops were published in Manufacturing Education for the 21st Century - a publication offering guidance and strategic direction to assist new and emerging educational programs, as well as existing programs undergoing revision. The publication was sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (Dearborn, MI) - a professional society serving the manufacturing industries - and the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (Washington, D.C.) - a research and service organization dedicated to enhancing the productivity and competitiveness of all tiers of U.S.-based manufacturing through the accelerated development and deployment of advanced manufacturing technologies and related workforce skills.

All participants of the workshops and surveys reported that major competency gaps now exist. However, expectations for accomplished skill levels are somewhat less for personnel with associate degrees than those with bachelor's or master's degrees. Following are the fourteen major areas discussed in the publication.

Communication Skills
Five of the six workshops ranked communication skills - including the six sub-categories listed below - as an area that needs major improvement. The sixth workshop placed this competency under the term "Business Skills." The six sub-categories include:

  • Presentation skills.
  • Written report generation capabilities.
  • Graphic computer software usage.
  • Team building and teamwork skills.
  • Listening abilities and skills.
  • Meeting organization and facilitation.

Teamwork
Workshop participants felt that there are certain skills necessary to work well on a team. Those skills identified as having competency gaps were interpersonal relations, conflict resolution, understanding diversity, being a team member and accountability.

Personal Attributes
This topic came up at the majority of workshops. Issues presented as competency gaps included leadership, sensitivity to others, professionalism, integrity, a consciousness of the entire enterprise, global awareness, the ability to both teach and learn from others and analytical skills. In addition, there also needs to be a sense that consensus building is important and that meeting commitments on a personal basis constitutes a significant element of professional behavior.

Manufacturing Principles
While specific competency issues concerning manufacturing principles were not dealt with at length, considerable interest was expressed over more recent topics such as lean manufacturing, Theory of Constraints and concurrent engineering. Other topics that came up in individual workshops included waste handling, material control, just-in-time methodology and solid education in the principles of hydraulic, pneumatic and electrical systems attained through real-world application examples.

Reliability
All workshops commented that no new engineers seemed to recognize the potential impact of reliability, i.e., how it affects the writing of specifications for equipment; the consideration of maintainability and serviceability of the equipment; and the testing for the expected life cycle of the machines. They also felt that a good understanding of Failure Mode and Effects Analysis is critical to the proper application of reliability principles.

Project Management
Ranging from the basic principles of project management to those with cross-functional impact, four out of the six workshops found this area to be of major concern. Also listed as gaps under this topic were resource deployment, the need to gain an appreciation for the impact of deadlines on others involved with the project, planning, monitoring and the ability to prioritize.

Manufacturing Processes
All workshops identified gaps in real-world applications of various process fundamentals. But due to the expanse of applications possible, attendees did not deal with any specific technology or process at length. However, the most identified competency gaps turned up in these areas:

  • CAD/CAM.
  • Geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.
  • Product engineering including customer focus, reliability, quality, concurrent engineering and product realization.
  • Materials (knowledge of principles, as well as applications).
  • Blueprint reading.
  • Metrology.
  • Hydraulics.
  • Electronics.

Other gaps cited were in statistical process control, tooling, monitors and sensors, lubrication, finishing and fixturing.

Business Skills
Specific topics where graduate understanding did not meet required levels in business skills included cash flow, return on investment, new product development costs, engineering economics, operations of the manufacturing enterprise, understanding of entrepreneurship, customer focus, risk analysis, risk management and life cycle costing.

Quality
Quality issues arose in five of the six workshops, especially as they related to the standards of ISO 9000 compliance. Because quality is core to all industries, a fundamental understanding of quality processes and techniques was deemed essential so that graduates would have a command of the skills necessary to perform tasks.

Change Management
Half of the workshops raised concerns that new graduates do not have an appreciation for the concept of change or its management. Specific gaps in this area included: long and short-term effects and their management, product configuration control and documentation, and the necessity of being an agent of change.

Statistics and Probability
Four out of six workshops cited this area as one of concern, noting that both newly hired and experienced engineers needed more statistics knowledge.

Ergonomics (Human Factors)
The fact that safety is of great concern to the industry is lost on most new engineers - even ones who attended ergonomics courses. Attendees noted that as human factors relate to product areas, concerns seem to be more readily apparent. But it was felt that most new engineers are not able to apply ergonomics to their workstations in things like design, safety, and lifting and bending.

Materials
Not only was fundamental knowledge of materials cited as necessary, but also knowledge of the basics of material selection, manufacturability and how materials can be applied.

Continuous or Lifelong Learning
Most workshops said that few newly graduated engineers or technologists recognized that his or her education was not at an end upon the completion of a degree or that they must continue to update their skills.

Getting Hands-On Experience

There are several ways to close the competency gaps as a part of the in-house process, such as:

  • Mentoring in a controlled, structured approach.
  • Implementing the use of current methods and tools as applied in moldmaking/molding.
  • Maintaining skill levels and knowledge of current managers by using creative and innovative approaches within the plastics industry.
  • Fill workforce gaps other than engineering, such as the economics of business.

Provide your education/training organization with the skills, tools and techniques to perform an internal assessment using the ISO 9001:2000 criteria as an assessment framework. Using team exercises and case studies will enable participants to identify your company's strengths and opportunities for improvement. Complement your quality training and technical skills development by hiring an outside consultant who knows and understands your business. They assess situations with a results/performance focus and effectively connect their technical quality skills, expertise and experience to business performance goals.

Business today is no longer business as usual. Moldmaking/molding is changing the face of business and redefining traditional boundaries. Management and executive staff are faced with pressure to either embrace training opportunities or lose market share. With the focus of an enterprise on a global market, total integration and training time from the supplier side through the customer side, a missed opportunity to infuse quality training into the process has a more serious effect on the bottom line and the company image than ever before.

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