Five Questions With: Mary Johnson

The manufacturing worker shortage is prompting some companies to encourage almost-retirees to stay at work at bit longer, with offers of flexible schedules, job-sharing, and in some cases retro-fitted work areas. Mary Johnson, program manager for Polaris MEP and the Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network, spoke to the Providence Business News about what companies in Rhode Island are doing to address the issue.

PBN: Do we have an idea of how many manufacturing companies in Rhode Island offer incentives for retirees – or those about to retire – to stay on, even part time?

JOHNSON: I’m in small and midsized manufacturing companies regularly, and what I see is a number of incredibly loyal, hardworking and engaged baby boomers who continue to work well beyond the traditional retirement age. I’ve met machinists who are in their late 70s and are at work every day. They seem genuinely engaged in their work and are appreciated – even revered – for their knowledge, skill and craftsmanship.

Do they remain on the job due to a high level of engagement, an employer incentive, or because they need a paycheck? We don’t know for sure, although I imagine the answer is “all of the above.” We know that the number Rhode Island manufacturing jobs has been stable, at around 40,000, since 2012. However, during the decade prior to 2012 – which coincides with the baby-boomer generation’s prime earning years – the state lost 22,000 manufacturing jobs, according to census figures. It’s quite possible that at least some of the people who are of retirement age now continue to work to make up lost time due to layoffs or other financial setbacks they experienced in the mid- to late 2000s.

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PBN: What might some incentives include?

JOHNSON: When we asked textile manufacturers how they were addressing the labor and skills shortage, 70 percent said they were working their existing workforce more (adding overtime or making process improvements that improve productivity) and 30 percent said they are encouraging possible retirees to stay on the job longer. The youngest boomers are approaching 60 and the older, and larger, wave is approaching their mid-70s. We’re heading into a critical few years – my colleague Phil Ward calls it “the silver tsunami.”

The economy is strong. The 2018 Outlook survey by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte indicates that 28 percent of manufacturers nationally didn’t have enough people to get the work done. We’re in a period where employers need to find additional ways to encourage their employees to stay. We’re starting to hear about wage increases and it’s likely additional incentives will emerge.

Polls conducted by AARP and others suggest baby boomers would like an option to work remotely, they could use help with the cost of health care and medication, and they may need extra time off to care for their parents or for sick or disabled family members. Manufacturing is a hands-on profession; remote work might be an option for the office staff and sales reps but not so much for folks who work in production. The other options are possibilities worth considering.

PBN: If they stay on after their originally planned retirement, how might workers’ responsibilities change?

JOHNSON: Hearing stories from employers in the Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network inspired Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to introduce a bipartisan bill to provide funding through the Manufacturing Extension Partnership National Network to help manufacturers hire a retiring worker as a consultant to train the company’s next generation of employees. This will allow workers to transition into retirement by working for a limited period of time and shifting their job focus to mentoring and coaching younger workers.

The Washington Post and the Star Tribune have reported on Minnesota companies that are offering job-sharing, reduced work weeks and phased-in retirement plans. Some are retrofitting the shop floor and reducing repetitive movement, making the jobs easier on the body, which helps people remain working later in life if they so choose.

PBN: Must this particular labor-shortage tactic be done in tandem with other initiatives, such as trainings, tech-school alliances and apprenticeships?

JOHNSON: I don’t think there is one magic bullet. The success of the Real Jobs RI program, funded by the [R.I.] Department of Labor and Training, is that it helps industry create programs that meet their needs. There is a lot of energy in this space right now: the Phoenix Partnership, [Shipbuilding/Marine Trades and Advanced Manufacturing Institute], [Community College of Rhode Island], the Steel Yard, Apprenticeship RI, the Westerly Education Center, IYRS [School of Technology & Trades] and We Make RI. … The Pawtucket Foundation is collaborating to develop a program with the New England Institute of Technology.

RITIN, the Composites Alliance and Polaris MEP help by acting as intermediaries. We gather companies and facilitate discussions. Sometimes the companies consider each other competitors, and are a little leery at first, but we focus on identifying common ground and tackling big-picture problems … finding creative and actionable solutions will help keep companies competitive and local.

Polaris MEP also works with manufacturers to implement Training within Industry, a hands-on method of sharing the essential skills of a job with others. In the best case, a company would document their processes with TWI, and the retiring worker would be paid for a mutually agreeable time period to train the up-and-coming workforce.

Christian Cowan, Polaris MEP’s center director, is working hard to help the Rhode Island Manufacturing community prepare for the next wave of change – commonly called Manufacturing 4.0 – that introduces technology as part of the solution. For some companies, Manufacturing 4.0 will mean exploring ways to automate processes or use data to reduce maintenance cycles. At other companies, it may mean research and development partnerships with universities to create new products and processes.

PBN: What is RITIN doing on this front?

JOHNSON: RITIN’s plan is to harness the expertise of people … in manufacturing to teach young people the fundamentals of being a loom mechanic or machine operator. The RITIN training programs will be held in manufacturing facilities on the weekends. By the time the training is completed, the young worker will be ready to job shadow or even take a job in a company.

RITIN President Michael Woody talks about “changing hearts and minds” to encourage more young people to explore careers in manufacturing. Our website (ritin.org) features a series of videos that focus on manufacturing careers. … We’re going to continue to add to that series and expand on it.

We’re also developing partnerships to encourage students to explore textile-design, research and manufacturing careers. On Feb. 11, for instance, RITIN, the University of Rhode Island College of Business, the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Design and the URI Business Engagement Center are hosting a networking fair. It will feature manufacturing companies that are hiring staff and interns, and a speaking program.

We’re collaborating with Kunal Mankodiya of URI’s Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering to create a textiles and advanced-materials hackathon [in which] students will be challenged to solve real-world problems.

RITIN’s hosted a well-received exhibit at the Providence Mini Maker Faire for the past two years, and we’ve joined Polaris MEP in sponsoring the Seamless Work installation at the Slater Mill Museum. It opens on Feb. 13 and tells the story of three modern textile manufacturers: Colonial Mills, Neocorp and Northeast Knitting.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.