Five Questions With: Phil Ward

With senior population growth, or the “silver tsunami,” many baby boomers will hit retirement age at the same time. In the United States, manufacturers are tasked with effectively capturing these employees’ knowledge and quickly training their replacements. It was the subject of a recent Polaris Manufacturing Extension Partnership event, with Project Manager Phil Ward as speaker.

PBN: Polaris MEP has cited the Senate Special Committee on Aging report from 2017 showing that there will be a shortage of 5 million people for qualified manufacturing jobs in 2026 – other stats show that more than 30 percent of companies are being proactive regarding this. Why is that, in your view?

WARD: The economy is strong right now, and most of the manufacturers we’re talking to, particularly those in the defense sector, are experiencing a boom. The companies are focused on producing on time and capturing new work while it’s plentiful. At the smaller shops, in particular, the plan has been to take care of workers, so they’ll stay on the job.

We believe the trend is starting to shift and companies are getting more proactive. We’ve had a burst of calls from companies that want to document what key employees do with formal written instructions. We’ve also seen an uptick in manufacturers creating training programs and requesting training grants through the Real Jobs Rhode Island program, of which Polaris MEP is a partner.

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We’ve recently brought workforce program managers Lindsey Brickle and Margo Karoff-Hunger on board full time to focus on helping manufacturers create new pathways into careers and effective training programs to help current employees develop new skills.

PBN: What is Polaris MEP doing to help manufacturers in R.I. with this?

WARD: Polaris MEP offers a Job Instruction course that allows companies to capture the knowledge of their older workers and efficiently transfer that to new workers. I work directly with the people on the production floor to document the tribal knowledge – the things people have figured out over time to get the job done. We include the technical expert to ensure that the instructions reflect the big picture of why certain steps are critical to the process.

Polaris MEP works directly with manufacturers to create training programs through the Real Jobs RI program, funded by the [R.I.] Department of Labor and Training. Whether manufacturers are looking to develop programs to recruit and train new hires or skill up current employees, we work with companies to develop unique programs tailored to their specific needs, often connecting them with existing programs. … In addition, we have a vetted network of service providers and trainers to suit their unique challenges.

Our Manufacturing Innovation Challenge program is highly effective at helping companies that are looking to scale, or are otherwise in transition, to identify the path forward.

PBN: What is the Job Instruction and Training Within Industry?

WARD: Training Within Industry service was a U.S government program that was established in 1940 to increase U.S. production to support the Allied forces fighting in Europe against Germany. The unusual name came from the belief that no single government agency could get industry to ramp up production to meet the country’s needs and that “the real job had to be done by industry, within industry.”

There are four courses that were offered under TWI, all geared at helping supervisors improve their skills. Job Instruction was created to teach supervisors to instruct employees “how to remember how to do a job, quickly, safely and conscientiously.”

Job Instruction gave companies the skill to know how to document a job, and then how to teach it to others. This helped companies train the workers they needed to scale up production. … One hundred percent of companies that utilized Job Instruction saw a minimum of 25 percent reduction in training time.

PBN: How can such a program – developed in the 1940s – work now?

WARD: There are parallels to today. During World War II, skilled workers left to fight and companies needed to ramp up production with newly hired staff who were not highly skilled in manufacturing, including women, retired workers and people who had been deferred from service. Everyone needed to be trained quickly and well, so that production levels could be maintained and increased.

And even though technology has changed dramatically, the training methods that were effective and efficient … in the 1940s still work well today. Job Instruction is highly structured and follows certain key guidelines. For instance, a job-breakdown sheet is created so the trainer works from a standardized document; the training is always done one-on-one, which is the most effective way to learn; and the task is broken into “showing” and “telling” steps that are slowly introduced.

PBN: Have many Rhode Island companies tried this program, or is it relatively new to our manufacturing environment here?

WARD: Training Within Industry had an organized reintroduction in the United States in 2001. Even though it is not a new program, most companies nationwide had not heard of it, despite the strong outcomes. Companies have proven reductions in training time of 50 percent to 75 percent and knowledge-retention rates over 95 percent.

We’ve found that companies that have a good understanding of lean manufacturing are the first to get on board because they understand how it will take them to the next level of productivity and cost savings. A half dozen companies have taken advantage of the JI training since Polaris MEP began offering it in November of 2018.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.