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Engaging Nontraditional Manufacturing Talent: Military

Article written by Chris Cunningham, PhD, UC Foundation Professor of Psychology, and Spencer Paulson, Lead Working Group Facilitator & Graduate Assistant, Industrial and Organizational Psychology Department, both from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Former/Current Military Personnel

Although not entirely new as a potential population considered for manufacturing talent, former and current military personnel are often overlooked or undervalued. This talent group includes anyone with military experience who may have left the military with good standing or may still be active in a Reserve or National Guard capacity. Often, these individuals have advanced technical training and leadership development training, as well as many interpersonal and team coordination skills that are increasingly important in Industry 4.0 manufacturing environments. At the Smart Workforce Conference held in December 2022, many of the SMEs had former military experience and chose to participate in this focus group. For details on this event and the methods used to gather the information summarized in this post, please check out the first post in this series.

What is the manufacturing industry doing well to reach this talent group?

Members of this working group identified several ways in which the manufacturing industry is successfully signaling its desire to hire members of this population. The strongest example of this is the SkillBridge program, which is a Department of Defense program that helps active service members gain real-world job experiences in their last 180 days of service through internships or apprenticeships. The SMEs identified that the manufacturing industry typically has a large presence within the SkillBridge program because this industry generally recognizes the value of knowledge and skills developed in the military. In some manufacturing settings, members of this population are also able to transition pretty well from military to civilian work functions, when the work environment and expectations are similarly designed or structured.

What is the manufacturing industry not doing well to accommodate this talent group?

With respect to this question, a major concern identified within this working group was the lack of communication between managers and members of this population about differences that often exist between working for the military and in the private sector. One example of this is that many military personnel are conditioned to follow a highly regimented schedule, which includes clear pay scales, time-to-promotion guidelines, and clear daily job responsibilities. In a civilian manufacturing organization, however, there tends to be more autonomy in job tasks, and less consistency in pay and promotion (with both often being based on merit, instead of years of service). Differences like these can result in many Veterans/Service members experiencing uncertainty around how to best operate in a current non-military manufacturing environment.

It was also noted that while the manufacturing industry does often recognize the value of generalizable work-related knowledge, skills, abilities, and general competencies developed through military service, the training, recruitment/selection methods, and compensation models in manufacturing organizations are not typically designed to take all of this into account. Related to this concern was a final challenge associated with this nontraditional talent population: not having effective talent pipelines that facilitate identification, selection, and placement of Veterans/Service members into best-fitting manufacturing positions. The SkillBridge program noted earlier is helping, but members of this population often need additional help beyond the boundaries of that program.

What can the manufacturing industry do better to attract and retain this type of talent?

When devising strategies to better accommodate this talent, this working group of manufacturing SMEs noted that one solution may involve developing talent pipelines with military recruiting stations to help new recruits understand how their military service can lead to a longer-term career in manufacturing. A strategy along these lines has the added benefit of addressing localized talent needs, given that recruiting centers typically focus on specific communities. Another promising strategy identified by this working group was for manufacturing organizations (and possibly broader industry organizations) to more clearly communicate and demonstrate career progression paths within this industry for individuals with different types of military training and service experience. Such efforts to clearly convey expectations and requirements are likely to resonate well with members of this potential talent population. A final strategy identified was to ensure that manufacturing organizations have resources available to support Veterans/Service members while working on-site, such as career and mental health counselors. These types of resources on-site can greatly help to ease the transition from military service to private sector work.

By overlooking and undervaluing this population, the manufacturing industry is missing out on qualified and invaluable talent that is ready to work. While the effort to better accommodate this talent is visible, there is much more that can be done. By investing in talent pipelines, providing clear career paths, and infusing counselors who are readily available within the organization, the manufacturing industry can tap into this valuable talent pool.

The Smart Factory Institute continues to bridge the gap between future technology and manufacturers to ensure workers possess the advanced technological knowledge and skills to succeed in today's manufacturing climate. Our next signature event which will wrap up Chattanooga Engineers Week, the Automation, Maintenance, & Reliability Summit, sponsored by the University if Tennessee Center for Industrial Services, will be focused for automation and maintenance professionals to understand how they can maximize asset reliability and avoid machine downtime, while ultimately improving their automation, maintenance, and reliability programs. Get tickets now.

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