Fastener Industry Trends: Workforce, Skills Gap & Social Media
The fastener industry is no stranger to challenges. Let’s face it, it is not easy holding the world together in a literal sense. Especially as a segment within the industrial sector, which is not only battling economic issues, but also technology as well. Technology is becoming a greater part of every day life, from robotics to social media to 3D printing and beyond. In addition, the industry is facing a skills gap, both in acquiring new members of the workforce and training these new members to be prepared for when the more senior generations retire. These new challenges mixed with recurring challenges provide a great area for discussion. Luckily , when we attended the North Coast Fastener Association (NCFA) Fastener Social, we had the opportunity to speak to many professionals within the fastener industry and gain their inside perspectives on how they see the industry as it is now and where it is going for the future.
Marty Nolan of R.L. English Co. believes that one of the biggest issues is that business is slow, which partially stems from oil and gas. There has also been a number of consolidations recently. But why? Marty believes that there are a variety of factors, one seems to be the transition between generations. “As the industry gets a little older,” Marty says, “people that don’t have plans in place for someone to take over…are just selling.” Even without a plan, the growth targets do not seem to be growing organically or internally and they have to purchase sales. Parent companies sometimes have incumbent suppliers. Smaller companies can manage their own issues, but sometimes acquired businesses have to risk change. “[The smaller company] could win big, but if something goes wrong, it could put them out of business.” In order to deal with these consolidations and potentially prevent one, companies should consider reevaluation of what they are able to handle.
The skills gap, however, seemed to be an even more pressing matter. “The biggest problem in our industry now, especially for domestic manufacturing, is bringing the millennials into the manufacturing end,” says Rick Rudolph of Rick Rudolph Associates. He says he has spoken to many organizations who are lost on how to solve the issue. “They can’t get people to attract [millennials],” Rick says, “Even if they put back into the manufacturing industry, even if they have a good program for apprenticeships.” Charlie Kerr of Kerr Lakeside sees that “There is a serious shortage of people that are qualified to run sophisticated fastener manufacturing equipment.” Many times he encounters a lack of knowledge not only in running the equipment, but also among distributors who do not seem to familiar with the specifics of products.
Even younger professionals of the fastener workforce have noticed this gap to be an issue, not only in acquiring new members of the workforce, but also with some current members. Keith McGuire of Solution Industries notices that there are people who have grown up and “have been in the industry for twenty, to thirty, to forty years,” and know what they’re doing. Meanwhile that creates a disconnect for those much younger coming in, saying that their experiences are “kind of different.” For one, the skill sets and mindsets are different. He sees that many of the senior members of the workforce are ready to make phone calls, while younger members would rather send an email. He and his co-worker, Tim Vath, agree that there needs to be compromise moving forward.
“Experience matters,” Tim says. “I think the elder generations in the industry are needed,” Tim believes, “I think they need to pass on their knowledge. I don’t think the youth can just come and take over.” He thinks that those leaving and those coming in need to learn from one another. The older generations believe that how they have always done something should to be continued in the same way, while the younger generations are not always willing to cooperate. “It’s kind of what they’re used to doing,” adds Keith McGuire in regard to each generation’s practices, “and what they want to do.”
Despite the downfalls, the industry is very promising and there are solutions to overcome some of these issues. Kerr Lakeside has become involved with the Alliance for Working Together (AWT), a group of machine shop operators who sponsor robotics competitions that engage younger people. The teams are sponsored by a company and then those teams come into that company and build their robots. He has seen the positive results with many of these younger individuals turning to technical schools as a result in order to further their skills.
“A lot of people seem to look at [the fastener industry] as some boring industry that is not very intriguing to enter,” says Tim Vath, but he has found that it is the contrary. “You just think of it as nuts and bolts,” Tim says, “but it’s a lot more.” Since being involved in the fastener industry, Keith McGuire has found a lot of pleasant surprises. There are “[s]o many different technical parts of it. You think of it right now outside of the industry, you’re thinking of Home Depot going to grab a bolt here or there,” but it is more than that. “Just seeing all the different parts, all the different specifications, all the other small things that you would never think of” have given Keith a whole new perspective.
Other than being able to find a job that pays about $60,000-$80,000 within 3 years of being in the workforce, Rick Rudolph says the work environments are not the way they used to be. “The plants are all air conditioned,” he noticed, “The employees lounge has stainless steel appliances and some of them have lazy boys with a vibrator.” Although the physical environments have changed for the better, the culture and connection are the same and they matter all the more. Rick’s son recently joined him in the business and he tells his son he loves what he does because he gets up every day and calls his friends or their children or their grandchildren. “It’s a people business,” states Rick. It is all about the connections made and many of those connections can be made and maintained over social media.
“People get to know who you are,” Rick states in regard to social media, “I have people contacting me on my Twitter that are millennials and that’s the only way you’re going to reach them.” Rick uses Twitter, as does Marty Nolan who notices that a network of professionals does exist online. “There’s definitely a community of people using it,” Marty notes, “They’re still experimenting; they’re trying to figure out how it fits with how you do business.” Although utilizing social media has not directly given him a sale, the relationships developed through Twitter certainly have. Marty parallels an interaction on social media to attending an industry social and meeting other industry professionals. “What makes this interaction any different than a social media interaction? Some people don’t take it seriously…but where do you think you might meet customers,” Marty asks. “When you turn away from [social media] and don’t at least engage to see where they’re going, it’s the equivalent of not sending someone to a trade show…they’re all pertinent.”
Overall, the fastener industry, like every industry, has its challenges, but there are potential solutions. While there has yet to be a “one size fits all”, new advances in technology and work environments are opening doors to a variety of potential solutions. Sometimes, these doors are literally opening to the possibilities. Programs like the AWT and Manufacturing Day provide opportunities for the industry to connect with potential employees, parents, educators, politicians and anyone who might be curious to the modern industrial world.
No one really has a definitive answer to resolving the skills gap or every issue presented, but as frustrations persist, the thing to do is try. The traditional methods of doing business are necessary, however, so are the newer ways of business. As Keith McGuire puts it: “We have to make sure that we’re learning the whole business, not just ‘we can do it our way’.” Through compromise, experimentation and education, the best solutions can be discovered. An open mind to trying new things and evolving with the times keeps the business alive and moving forward. “I think that sometimes the most bizarre idea ends up being the most productive one,” says Charlie Kerr. We think he might be on to something.
Check out this year’s North Coast Fastener Association | Fastener Social Photo Gallery!