Brooke Weddle: Manufacturing Needs A Rebrand

Brooke Weddle, Senior Partner At McKinsey
Brooke Weddle, Senior Partner At McKinsey
Brooke Weddle, senior partner at Mckinsey, sat down with Manufacturing Digital to discuss methods to address manufacturing's global hiring crisis

Brooke Weddle has been at McKinsey since 2008. A senior partner of the global consultancy, her expertise lies in researching, discussing and advising on organisation-related topics, including talent and the workforce. 

The workforce has been dramatically shaped over the last sixteen years by globalisation, digital transformation and climate change, and Brooke brings vital insight into how all sectors- including manufacturing- can better understand the hiring landscape moving forward. 

Global Organisational Health: driving global competitiveness 

Brooke has built a comprehensive portfolio of more than fifteen digital analytics-driven solutions for clients, helping them increase performance throughput, achieve productivity outcomes and transform organisational health. 

This portfolio is part of research McKinsey has been undertaking for over twenty-five years, helping large industrial players assess employee welfare, from top executives to frontline employees. 

The solutions include the Organisational Health Index, the largest survey of its kind to measure organisational effectiveness. The survey seeks to quantitatively answer how organisations can run operations to serve performance objectives, identifying a positive correlation globally between performance and organisational health. Overall, when it comes to hiring and workplace transformation, countries worldwide have more in common than they do differences.

“It's less about what geography you are operating in and more about what is going to drive your competitive edge,” Brooke explains.

Staying competitive today means recognising that the world has changed. Work, as we know it, has changed. And nowhere is this more prominent than in global manufacturing. Brooke has seen firsthand the struggle manufacturers, from small local enterprises to large industrial clients, have faced with hiring in the sector. In fact, McKinsey has created a detailed report.

But why release such a report now, when the industry has been facing hiring issues for years? 

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Reason One: Demand for skills 

"What's new is that the gap is increasing, and that's because there is more demand for those skills,” Brooke explained.

"In the US, that demand comes from things like the CHIPS Act, so we're investing more in semiconductors in the US. It comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law and investments in large-scale construction projects.”

This demand also originates from the embrace of transformative technologies like AI and industrial robots. To effectively integrate and utilise these technologies, manufacturers need a workforce with adequate digital skills. Another factor driving this demand, according to Brooke is sector-specific influences. 

“It comes from sector-specific things like AUKUS,” she says.

"Which is the trade agreement between the US, the UK, and Australia to build more submarines, requiring more skilled labour and trade.”

Skilled labour and trade that the industry cannot provide. To develop the means to provide it, Brooke articulates two key approaches. Firstly, manufacturers need to undergo strategic self-assessment. “ Start with a clear picture of what talent is required and what skills are required to really drive business value.” she explains. 

"It sounds so obvious, and yet good old-fashioned strategic workforce planning is not necessarily a common practice at many large industrial companies. Companies should be using data analytics to get ahead of how the future of work will impact skills and roles over time.” 

The second is to consider the wider manufacturing ecosystem. “ Within that context, using data and analytics to figure out, well, what is our employee value proposition here? How can we create something truly special and differentiated?” Brooke explains. 

"Because often the next best option for some of these workers is not another manufacturing job. It's being an Uber driver or something with much more flexibility” 

Brooke makes clear that manufacturers cannot bridge the hiring gap alone. They must engage holistically, embracing what she calls a ‘system-level approach’. 

"That's between employers coming together with educational providers, whether they're apprenticeship schools or community colleges or other kinds of vocational institutions, with some kind of market maker there,” Brooke explains.

Engaging this ecosystem is the key to attracting new skilled workers into the manufacturing sector. Skilled workers are desperately needed, considering the second reason for the creation of the report- what Brooke terms the Greater Green Transition.

Reason Two: The Greater Green Transition

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“There are a large number of older workers that are exiting the workforce, and not being replaced at pace by younger workers,” Brooke explains. “ We call this the greater green transition.” 

Even when manufacturing workers are being replaced, that is a process in and of itself. “ Proficiency is not something in a skilled trade that is earned overnight,” she adds. “ There's apprenticeship, there's development, so that is exacerbating the problem.”

Despite the challenges, Brooke is optimistic about tackling the greater green transition, proposing several key approaches. One is by reframing the skills a tradesperson needs to succeed at their job and providing upfront training that reflects this. 

"As you think about upskilling and reskilling and kind of the learning journey that a skilled tradesperson needs to undertake, the thing is the skills are changing dynamically,” Brooke says, emphasising that manufacturers have to conceptualise both their approach to training and sourcing talent to address the skills gap. 

"It’s not enough to go to traditional labour pools to fundamentally change the equation here in terms of supply and demand. So what we're seeing is people looking at adjacent kinds of roles.”

She identifies truck drivers as an example of the professionals manufacturers shouldn’t overlook, as they have transferable skills and technical abilities that apply well to the field.

Ultimately, manufacturers must broaden their adjacent talent pools and redefine what ‘talent’ means in a digital age. 

"The big shift here is the focus on a skills-based approach rather than a role-based or credential-based approach,” Brooke says.

“ We've seen a loosening of certainly the four-year degree as an entry point into a lot of jobs.” McKinsey itself has been part of this change, with Brooke highlighting that the consultancy elected their first partner, without a college degree three to four years ago. 

"There just needs to be a lot more collaboration between educational providers, right, and the employers themselves, and then what I would call market maker entities, whether that's a workforce council or an economic development organisation,” Brooke adds. “ It’s someone who can help connect and translate the requirements of the employers to the educational institutions.” 

Creating an adjacent talent pool requires talent to be, as they say, swimming nearby in the first place. Pivotal to this process is as Brooke says, reiterating a new value proposition for the sector.

The next generation needs a coherent message on why a career in manufacturing can be meaningful and desirable, and they need to see representations and examples of the sector that challenge its out-of-date reputation. 

Reason Three: Manufacturing’s much-needed rebrand

Changing homepage of buildsubmarines.com

What do most people imagine when they picture manufacturing jobs? The 24/7 grind on the factory floor? Hard hats, hurting backs and tasks as cyclical as continually turning conveyer belts?

For most reading this article, it's a no-brainer that this representation is outdated and inaccurate. But for those outside this dramatically changing industry, there's little to challenge this narrative. Which brings us onto the final reason Brooke identifies for McKinsey creating the report: acknowledging the generational preferences that are shaping industry employment rates and hiring practices. 

The rise of remote working during COVID-19, heightened awareness surrounding the climate crisis and a skyrocketing cost of living has left the younger generation, globally, with distinct working priorities. These include flexibility, clear career progression paths and concrete working benefits.

“There are new generations in the workforce, and those generations have different kinds of preferences,” Brooke says.

"So there is an opportunity to think about appealing to those younger generations and showing them how there is meaning in skilled trades work. There is even flexibility. There are lots of innovations concerning shift flexibility now. There's career progression.”

As Brooke notes, manufacturing is now more flexible than ever, thanks in huge part to digital transformation. AI, industrial robots and digital twins have unlocked new opportunities for creative working and flexible learning. “ What can you do with technology? Well, you can push more of the transactional tasks to either a robot or some automated process.” Brooke explains.

"If we can help train people using a digital twin versus requiring them to be on-site every time they want a learning experience, well, that introduces flexibility, right?” 

Leading manufacturers are already using digital twins for training purposes, to great success. Brooke highlights that they can also use analytics and data on a broader level to identify their unique value proposition. 

"What do people want? Let's use analytics to figure that out and then ground that in. So if that's what employees want, then how do we create an experience and how do we use technology to create that experience? It must be this systematic approach versus these ideas that often kind of live and die very quickly because they're not grounded back to the reality of what employees want.”

And what do younger employees want? Yes, as Brooke says, they want flexibility, progression and adequate compensation. But they also want meaning and will get up and go if their role lacks it. “The difference is that younger generations will vote with their feet if they're not getting that meaning in work,” Brooke explains. “ So we really have to pay attention to that.”

Build Submarines website changing homepage

There’s plenty of meaning to be found within the manufacturing industry. It’s the backbone of global infrastructure, healthcare and food production.

So much of the gifts we buy, the transport we take, and the places we call home owe their existence and character to, in some part, the labour of the sector. The trades have always been full of vital, talented, hard-working people, long before technology entered the space, back when welders and artisans completed their craftsmanship slowly by hand.

Today, digital transformation is dramatically altering the sector, enhancing its flexibility, progression and promise to new generations. 

“ I think there needs to be a little bit of a rebranding of skilled trades work relative to these younger generations,” Brooke says. “ That is an opportunity. Yes, it's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity to think differently.” 

I asked Brooke if she had any examples of manufacturers getting their rebranding right, and she highlighted what the submarine industrial base in the US has done with the buildsubmarines.com website, which she notes is “More than just a website.”

“ It's a marketing campaign, and if you go on it, it talks about building giants, right, and earning bragging rights. I mean, this is language from the website, so it's really telling a different story. We do need to tell a different narrative when it comes to these jobs to change mindsets around what that looks like.” 

Discussion of the digital skills and hiring gap is frequently doom and gloom, but Brooke provides an optimistic perspective of the sector's challenges as providing opportunity.

“ I think there's enormous potential here,” Brooke concludes “ But what I see companies doing is, in some ways, chasing shiny, bright objects versus taking a systematic approach to: let's start with the employee value proposition.” 

How can manufacturers start with the employee value proposition? By working to understand the priorities of the next working generation and by utilising technology to create attractive employment opportunities.

Brooke reiterates that telling a different story about the industry is key, because while money certainly matters, meaning is what ensures long-term working fulfilment. 

It's clear that the manufacturing industry, undergoing a period of dramatic evolution, has a far better story to tell than the one currently being told. 

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