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Attracting best, brightest in IT not always easy for manufacturers

Analysts and hiring managers say manufacturing has an IT recruiting problem, but they find hope in playing up leading-edge factory automation and working closely with educators.

Does the manufacturing sector have a problem attracting IT talent? Numbers are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that IT professionals see manufacturing as something of a career-killing backwater, and it’s creating real challenges for recruiters and manufacturing IT managers. 

Not surprisingly, the issue is especially acute at companies that make low-tech products, have small IT budgets or are slow to adopt technology.

One chief information officer at a wood products company who asked not to be identified said the industry doesn’t pay well in general and spends too little on IT to even make the career interesting, let alone a stepping stone to advancement.

“We are regarded as fuddy-duddy,” he said. “I cannot attract enough smart people who I can take to the next level. I also network with a number of other IT managers in my sector, and they have similar thoughts.”

But manufacturing’s advocates say it gets a bad rap, especially from high school and college students who envision dreary factories and mind-numbing work. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) counters that an increasing number of industrial jobs involve clean rooms and sophisticated, computer-controlled processes. It is trying to attract young workers into manufacturing by encouraging schools to sign onto a certification process that prepares students for such industrial jobs as robotics technician and manufacturing engineer.

“People are not necessarily as interested [in] coming to work for what they think of as a manufacturing company,” said Jim Hefti, vice president of human resources at Advanced Technology Services Inc. (ATS), a provider of managed services for factory maintenance, parts and IT, based in Peoria, Ill. “Once our candidates see that we’re dealing with highly sophisticated systems, their eyes open up.”

Hefti said manufacturing IT recruitment has gotten more difficult in the last 15 years, though he noticed an improvement during the last recession, when people couldn’t find work in other sectors.

He said ATS recruiters try to get candidates enthused by explaining the role its systems play in making factories run better and by asking employees to sit in on interviews. ATS, which employs approximately 300 IT people out of 2,700, makes a computerized maintenance management system and remote network-management software that can monitor factory and IT systems and predict failure.

IT outsourcing: Threat or opportunity?

ATS bases much of its business on the inability of manufacturers to find skilled IT and plant maintenance workers, and promotes managed services as a solution.

But outsourcing, especially overseas, could also be a major cause of manufacturing’s issues with IT talent, according to Bob Parker, group vice president at IDC Manufacturing Insights, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass.

“As an industry, there’s been a general movement toward outsourcing, especially infrastructure”-- a shift away from people “who keep the lights running toward more of a business-analyst role,” Parker said. Business analysts have hybrid IT and business skills and are involved in demand planning and sales and operations planning, for example.

Different forces prevail, however, in what Parker calls highly specialized automation: computer-aided design (CAD), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), a standard for computer-based industrial control systems.

“That’s the area that concerns me,” Parker said. 

People with these skills are aging out of the workforce, while newcomers seem less interested in them, preferring to acquire more general skills that transfer more easily between companies.

Manufacturers who have outsourced -- to China, for example -- are in a delicate position when it comes to ensuring knowledge transfer between their retiring and incoming workers, according to Parker. To succeed, they’ll have to think more globally and put nationalism aside, unlike associations like NAM, whose mission is to keep skills in the United States. With its dedication to math and science education and huge workforce, China is more likely to have a larger base of educated workers willing to take on U.S. manufacturers' more specialized tasks, he said. In fact, building their overseas workforces could make truly transnational, U.S.-based companies more viable because much of manufacturing’s recent growth has come from exports.

It won’t help, either, for domestic education initiatives to focus solely on high schools and community colleges, according to Parker.

“This sounds elitist, but why not at MIT? If it’s a community college program, you’re kind of saying this isn’t a very important thing,” he said.

Salary trends might help explain the staffing shortage. According to Foote Partners LLC, a Vero Beach, Fla.-based research company that surveys companies on their IT salaries and skills premiums, manufacturing pays 9% below the average of all industries.

David Foote, the firm’s co-founder and CEO, explained that the figure is just a multiplier that human-resources departments and IT managers can use as a guideline for setting salaries.

“You don’t want to lose someone because of pay,” Foote said. “You’re in control of that, and as busy as you are, get that right.”

He said a common recruiting mistake is to be too specific in the required skills -- say, work experience in predictive analytics instead of strong math skills and college courses, or Oracle administrator experience with narrow conditions attached to it.

“We always make a point of telling people you might want to relax a couple of those,” Foote said. And a slow approval process can give other companies time to make counterproposals.

Foote also tells his clients not to focus on skills at the expense of other, less quantifiable factors.

“Don’t forget people’s ability to work in teams or their creativity,” he said. “You need to find someone who is going to do well in your environment.”

IT professionals can also be enticed by some less obvious benefits of working in manufacturing. Craig Cormier, IT manager at Anderson Power Products Inc. in Sterling, Mass., said companies in other sectors tend to be based in cities, while manufacturers tend to be in suburban and rural areas, which his candidates found attractive. “Also, candidates like the variety of work you tend to find in a manufacturing environment, since the IT staff tends to be smaller,” he said. The downside: limited room for advancement.

Parker’s sense is that there are more jobs for business analysts, but there are still good opportunities for CAD and PLC programmers as their skills become scarcer. “You might not be a manager, but you’ll command a premium salary,” like COBOL programmers, who prospered in the Y2K scare, he said.

Parker said “systems of engagement” are the next big growth area: social media tools and collaboration platforms that bring experts together. “At the very tactical level, you want to have people with [Microsoft] SharePoint skills. It’s everywhere in manufacturing. It’s like the new Visual Basic. A lot of new applications are going to be built on it.”

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