When my father passed away at age 56, he had spent more than half his life working in manufacturing. Most of that time was with one employer, first on the manufacturing floor, then as a foreman, and finally as plant manager. Like many of his generation, he worked his way up, learning the ins and outs of the company as he rose. In the rare instances when he didn’t know how to solve a problem, he knew who or where to turn to find the answer.
Studies show my father’s work story is pretty typical. Across industries, Baby Boomers tend to hold jobs a long time, sticking around an average of eight years. But in manufacturing, job tenure is even longer. There, Baby Boomers spend a forty-year career gaining industry experience with an average of three employers. The median length of their last job before retirement is fifteen years. During that time, such employees have plenty of opportunities to build their expertise.
Younger generations are different. Workers under forty stay a much shorter time before moving on, only 2.4 years. Gen Z workers stick around for just over a year. This drastic change in job loyalty is creating a knowledge gap issue for many companies. Experts are retiring, and their replacements aren’t staying long enough to obtain the same level of understanding.
And here’s the kicker: those Boomer employees often leave before they completely share their knowledge with replacements. The willingness to share knowledge is there, but employees may feel a lack of time or opportunity to do so. One 2018 survey showed 57% of Boomers shared half or less of their knowledge as they approached their final day with the company.
Manufacturers have been aware of this problem for decades. But the pandemic has accelerated this issue, forcing some Boomers to retire early as their companies struggled to survive the year. Others have experienced a shift of focus and a realignment of priorities that has pushed their retirement up.
What does that mean for your company’s future? Nothing good, if you’re not preparing now for the imminent loss of knowledge. Nearly a quarter of the manufacturing workforce is eligible for retirement as early as 2027. Some estimate the associated skills loss will cost companies $3,000 per existing employee.
So what can you do to offset this problem? Here are three steps that can help you prepare.
Document Knowledge Now
You have documents for your systems and processes. But are they complete? Do you know where they are? More importantly, will an inexperienced machine operator know how to find them?
Take the time now to update and modernize your documentation. Capture expertise in videos or written documents and photos. Add these to existing documentation. You can even record work in action as your veterans are handling everyday procedures. This is a great way to create how-to videos for future use.
Additionally, consider how future employees will access this information. Maintenance and training videos can connect to QR codes posted on equipment, offering direct digital access to important files. This use of digital files will limit downtime caused by misplaced documentation.
Create Interactive Troubleshooting
Not everything is a straightforward if/then process. Some issues require the ability to anticipate and troubleshoot problems. This is where your long-term experts shine, and where they will be most missed. But how do you capture this sort of latent, unstructured knowledge?
It’s incredibly difficult. But giving new employees access to this dataset is important. One way to achieve this goal is by curating and managing this less formal knowledge before your experts retire.
There are several ways to do this. Put your experts together with a group of interested but less experienced peers in an informal lunch or brainstorm session. This gives your subject matter expert a chance to pass on what he knows, and your other employees a chance to ask questions. As another option, online forums offer your experts the chance to answer questions on their time schedule. This also maintains a written record of their answers for future reference, useful for years to come.
Finally, don’t overlook the possibility of maintaining ongoing relationships with your retired experts. The last year has been a master class in the possibilities of remote work; if you have an irreplaceable employee set on retirement, consider how you might entice them to work on an as-needed basis from a remote location.
Make Mentorships Work for Your New Workforce
Mentorship used to imply a one-on-one relationship between an experienced employee and a junior one, with a lot of hands-on time spent together. But rather than stick with past definitions, consider what sort of mentorship program will work best for your company.
Younger employees--especially now Gen Z is part of the workforce--are comfortable with digital technology. They expect training to use embedded videos, modular content, and even AI. And they don’t want to sit in a conference room; they want something less formal. Use your retiring experts to create a mentorship program tailored for them.
Meanwhile, your experts are busy doing their jobs. Mentoring and training is a task some find time-consuming and a distraction from their regular duties. Consider how videos or online curriculums using your Boomers’ expertise(training items created once and usable for years) can be used in conjunction with traditional one-on-one training. This option offers traditional one-on-one mentoring paired with digital background training, available on-demand for new hires or refresher training.
This trend isn’t going away any time soon. But technology and planning can alleviate some of the pain. Now is the time to capitalize on the unwritten knowledge of your long-term employees, before they retire. Your company’s future relies on upskilling your entire team now so everyone can do their jobs better later, and ensuring years of experience is preserved.