The war for talent, the battle for good people

Guest editorial
Shawn Kaufman
Director of Human Resources
Riggs Industries/J&J Truck Bodies & Trailers 

This article was published in the March 2020 edition of NTEA News.

If your career reaches back to the 1990s, you may have heard the phrase “war for talent” — which refers to the difficulty businesses had attracting and retaining qualified workers during that time. A temporary pause in the hostilities came about due to the dot-com crash of the early 2000s and last decade’s recession. However, the current labor market makes the talent war of prior years look like a minor scuffle.

For those employing skilled manufacturing workers and tradespeople, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit, hire and retain qualified workers. Companies attempting to hire are facing the most challenging labor market yet. The unemployment rate is hovering near a 50-year low. Nationwide, there are nearly 1 million more job openings than people receiving unemployment benefits. Demographic trends are also making staffing difficult. The Baby Boomer generation is the traditional labor backbone of the skilled manufacturing and trades sector. The oldest Baby Boomer reached retirement age in 2011, and now, about 10,000 retire per day on average. This pace is estimated to continue for six more years. The generation that follows (Gen X) encompasses those born after 1980 and is much smaller (46 million versus 76 million). By sheer numbers alone, they cannot fill the void Baby Boomers are leaving. The picture doesn’t improve for employers trying to recruit the younger generations.    

For most young people, jobs in manufacturing, in general, and the work truck industry, are not on their radar when choosing a career. Why is that, and what are some of the barriers to attracting the next generation to our industry?

A survey found 52% of teenagers ages 13–17 had little to no interest in a manufacturing career, with an additional 21% ambivalent. In addition, Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Survey, The Foundation for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Int’l, found 61% had never visited or toured a manufacturing facility, and only 28% had enrolled in an industrial art shop class. However, twice that number took a home economics class.

Companies need to recognize these trends and radically change their recruitment methods. The days of running a help-wanted ad in the local paper and waiting to be inundated with qualified applicants are long gone. The internet is effective, but passive recruitment techniques have limitations. Companies must approach talent acquisition and cultivation with the same mindset as sales and business development. This isn’t just rhetoric; we have adopted this approach at J&J, and it has shown positive results.

Over the last 12 months, we have interacted in some way with either students or faculty from 14 different high schools, technical centers and trade schools in our region. We’ve visited schools to speak with students and faculty about our organization and employment opportunities in manufacturing and skilled trades. Tours are a big part of our strategy — as often as possible, we welcome students, teachers, guidance counselors and top administrators into our facilities. We want them to see firsthand the work we do and the products we make. Prior to visiting our operation, most had no idea the variety of manufacturing-related careers available in their communities. We’re also proud of the number of students we’ve hosted through cooperative educational programs over the years. Topping it off, several of our supervisors and managers serve in advisory capacities at numerous local schools. 

We have adopted an aggressive and cost-effective, grassroots social media approach. We do our best to tell our story online and promote the success of young people we mentor.

Shawn Kaufman presented Recruitment and Retention Strategies to Address Your Labor Shortage at The Work Truck Show® 2020. View a full recap of Work Truck Week sessions and events at