Recruiting For Plant Managers Should Focus On Soft Skills

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The plant floor doesn’t look like it used to; it hasn’t for some time and it continues to evolve at a furious pace. But the job composition of plant managerial roles in manufacturing and operations have not necessarily evolved on pace with this rapid transformation.

This has caused a structural misalignment at the managerial level. The issue, related to both accelerating globalization in manufacturing and digital technologies enabling a dispersed workforce, was easy to predict but remains difficult to solve.

Global Pressures in Local Manufacturing Supply Chains

On several occasions in recent decades, the phrase “Made in America”—and “Made in Canada”, for that matter—became a selling point rather than a simple provision of fact.1 As manufacturing for consumer goods and upstream B2B products began to move overseas, those companies still running plants in the US and Canada wore that status like a badge of honour. There’s even a contingent of consumers in the US and Canada willing to pay higher prices for products produced on “home soil” 1,2 For reasons including job creation, the manufacturing industry has historically resisted outsourcing production.

But today, rather than the rule, consumer goods produced in North America are the exception. This transformation has brought serious challenges for manufacturing plants and production managers as supply chains have stretched across time zones and oceans alike. 

Globalization has had drastic effects on all links of manufacturing supply chains including the job composition of managerial roles in manufacturing and operations. Where the scope of work for a plant manager once may have overseen a small, but consistent, full-time local workforce, today the work is liable to include visibility on a number of high level factors and productivity targets governed by complex global pressures. 

This is especially the case where consumer goods or value-added B2B supply chains are concerned. Chains that require the confluence of parallel tributary supply chains present new logistical challenges for managers.

This shift away from “Made in Canada” has expanded the purview of the plant manager. While new technologies have created better visibility on these more complex supply chains, excelling in a role with so many moving parts requires a different set of skills.

As noted by the IIMM, “in traditional supply chains, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and customers each work to optimize their own logistics and operations. They acted in isolation concerned only with their part of the flow system which [created] problems and inefficiencies for other players in the channel hampering the smooth flow all of which add cost to the total system.”3 

Now, rather than visioning and measuring the productivity of one plant at home, managers must consider the delivery timelines, shortfalls, and costs of parts or materials coming from all over the world, especially Asia. 

The same report continues, “the responsibilities of the logistics and operations manager are not limited to coordinating the physical flows relating to production distribution, or after sales service; they are also responsible for functions such as research, development and marketing.”3

What’s more, in addition to the dispersal of materials, managers are now also required to manage a comparatively dispersed workforce.

Technologies Enable Dispersal of Workforce

Be it distributed over time or over space, new technologies have enabled workforces to be dispersed like never before. Sometimes this includes multiple sites under the purview of a singular manager but, more frequently, it has included the expanded implementation of shift work.

The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented impetus to have fewer people in the same space (naturally, you can only fit so many people on site with a safe six feet between everyone). As details about the virus became clearer, plants all over the world were forced to take action. The challenge? Immediately reduce the numbers of workers on the plant floor without sacrificing profit or productivity. 

For some, this meant leaning into technologies which lessened a pipeline’s reliance on human labour, including artificial intelligence and robotic automation. For others, this looked like reductions in force or the implementation of overnight shifts to keep the plant operational and at a profitable output despite restricted numbers of personnel.

Building such tools into the production pipeline adds another layer of complication for plant managers; instead of managing a single shift of people at the plant, the pressures created by globalization and the pandemic can easily demand the management of multiple shifts at multiple sites worked by humans and robots alike.

These circumstances created extraordinary conditions for plant managers and, looking forward, many of the “new normals” currently being embraced aren’t going anywhere. 

Plant Manager Recruitment Must Focus On Innovation

All of these conditions have rendered the plant manager role essentially unrecognizable for many folks and, as such, have made recruitment for high performing placements more challenging. 

Further, the skills required by plant managers to succeed in managing a global supply chain and a dispersed workforce of both humans and robots developed so quickly in situ that there is little precedent to learn from. Therefore, when recruiting for successful managers, hiring committees should turn their focus to soft skills. 

Look for track records of flexibility and on-the-job learning. This reflects a shift that’s becoming prevalent in other industries that were also forced to reorganize through the course of the pandemic: the most valuable candidates prove to be people committed to lifelong learning and big picture thinking; those who will grow with the company, even if it changes shape. 

In addition to these softer skills, plant managers must demonstrate their affinity for new managerial tech, including that which enables cross-site management of a dispersed workforce. Ultimately, the role of plant and production management has expanded rapidly from its earlier iterations from service work into knowledge work. The best managers will lead with intuition, openness, and ambition.

1 Weinswig, Deborah. “Consumer Trends Support Demand For ‘Made In America,’ But Will Shoppers Pay Up?” Forbes. Accessed March 1, 2021.
2 PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Made in Canada 2019.” PwC. Accessed March 1, 2021.
3. “Globalisation and Its Effects on SCM – Indian Institute of Materials Management (IIMM).” Accessed March 2, 2021.

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Kevin Britton

Kevin is our specialist in Industrial Management and Sales at Goldbeck Recruiting. He began his recruiting career in 2013 with Hays and became a senior recruiter within two years. A top biller in Mining and Resources, he was awarded as the North American Rookie of the Year on the way.

Kevin Britton