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Solving the Labor Issue

From Southern California to Toronto and from Vancouver to Miami, the phone call, email, or in person, starts out the same way, “Hey Mitch, who do you know that I can hire to…?” It’s another friend looking for what I call a “unicorn rainbow.” It’s a term my daughter and I often used to describe something magically amazing that just made our day/week/year. She’s 12 now so, that term isn’t cool anymore; what can I say, but she’s moved on!

As much as I would love to help, most of these roles are open for good reason—the people don’t exist. Yeah, call me crazy, or Captain Obvious (you pick).

What’s the Problem Anyway?

The overarching problem is that there is a massive labor shortage in our industry. And, the higher you go, the more difficult it is to fill a role. What magnifies this is that we try to solve this shortage using “tried and true” methods we’ve applied for many years on end. From using recruiters for management level roles to going to job fairs and reaching out to technical schools for labor roles. Sure, those used to work, but what about now?

As the US Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta said while visiting Michigan on May 29th, 2019, “Our economy nationwide is so strong. We’ve created 5.4 million jobs in the last two years … we have more open jobs that we have people looking for jobs. That’s never happened.”

You Can’t Defy Gravity

As Newton proved, gravity is real. You can believe it doesn’t exist but, the apple will still fall on your head! So, we can pretend that the problem doesn’t exist and try harder, pay more (buy employees in a bidding war), offer incentives and so forth or, we can take a different approach. One that uses technology to solve the labor crunch. I’d like to share a story for context.

In 2006, for my 40th birthday, my wife took me to Germany for a Porsche driving experience. I highly recommend it if you love cars, driving fast, and are not looking at the end cost when you book the trip! But the point is what we saw in Germany when not driving around. Before the tour, we got to visit several factories for windows, doors, glazing, and other industries. What we saw were highly automated production lines using a combination of software and equipment to run factories.

An owner of one company took us over to a new 200,000 square-foot building he just finished and asked me to guess how many staff were inside. Ok, I’ll bite, I super guessed low and said, “25!” He flung the door open and took us in. I saw a bright clean production area more like a BMW showroom. The floors, walls and ceiling were white, there was equipment in action all over the place, but there weren’t any people! So, I ask, “How many staff are in here???” He proudly tells me there are only 2 and he points up to a control room above the floor. WOW!

Getting my head around this at lunch, he proceeds to tell me that the problem they have in Germany is the high cost per employee. He goes on to tell me that the average cost per person was 80 Euros per hour.That worked out to roughly $120 per hour in 2005 dollars. As he walked me through the business logic, it was more economical to use technology than people.

He then goes on to say that in the US, we always solve our manufacturing problem by throwing more people at it … and that one day, we won’t be able to do that anymore. That discussion stuck with me like Velcro at a shag rug convention!

The Burning Building

At a recent leadership meeting with some of the top folks in our industry, the keynote speaker, Brian Solis, talked about business innovation. One of the slides said, “What was offered in the past and what is offered today were designed for different times.” Brian went on for about an hour discussing why what we’ve done doesn’t work anymore and how our industry is going to either embrace technology or become irrelevant. How our individual companies are going to develop a culture of innovation or be left behind.

After a very difficult hour for many in the room, I had several C-Suite execs come up to me and ask me if I paid him to come! Nope, but I sure should have! The joke became that I was standing in front the burning building with a fire hose and everybody was running out with flames on their suits. Interesting visual to a very sobering reality.

The bottom line was that our beloved industry can’t solve problems with strategies that no longer work. And in the area of people, technology is the future.

What it Gives You

Freedom! I still remember the first time I saw the scene of William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) in “Braveheart” when he was having a little chat with the local farmers on the battlefield. They were all dejected and getting ready to go back to their homes and live a meager life under the rule of the Lords. William gets up and gives them a reality check that they can be under the heal of the Lords or they can know that they lived as free men if they stand up and fight.

Well, that’s the same for us ya’ll (I’m in Atlanta, so totally OK to say it this way). You can go about our business and keep doing the things you‘ve done or you can make a change that will give you freedom from the past and freedom from our present.

For many of you, the discovery of this journey started in just the past couple of years speaking to someone at a random chance meeting, or booked appointment, at GlassBuild. This September 17-19, right here in my town of Atlanta, each of you will have the best opportunity to learn how to get on this technology journey. If you are coming, we all look forward to seeing you. If you have not committed yet, I am your William Wallace, calling you to come to GlassBuild to learn all about taking the technology and automation journey and experiencing the freedom that it offers.

Mitch Lewandowski is vice president of sales - North America at Soft Tech Group.