What if we could take the unemployed and soon-to-be unemployed and prepare them for a new career? What if your accountant was once a coal miner? Or your computer programmer was once an auto-line manufacturer? It doesn’t make a difference to you so long as they do a good job.
To remain adequately staffed, employers must turn to out-of-the-box recruiting strategies, but they’ll need to rewrite industry best practices and welcome input from communities and the government.
The future of “work” as we know it is changing fast. It always has. Automation and AI will eliminate many low skilled-manual jobs. Work weeks will get shorter and consequently leisure time will increase. In the meantime, many workers may be left behind, as history has shown. We must alter how we educate future generations and invest into retooling people’s present skills. Countries like Germany and South Korea have already begun. With hope, the wealth gap will shrink, politics will calm, and poverty will disappear.
Mining for new talent
We’ve witnessed both a tragic story and caustic debate about coal mining in the United States and heard promises to revive the once booming industry. Coal mining has been in decline since the end of World War Two and burning it adds catastrophic levels of CO2 into the atmosphere; coal mining is no longer the legacy industry it once was. But, contrary to popular belief, unemployed miners are a gold mine for employers.
There was a time in the late 1800s to mid-1900s when most males, young and old, who weren’t tradesmen, could find a job in a mine or a factory. A man (and often children until child labor laws) could work if he was fit and able. They couldn’t shove them underground quick enough to haul up the original black gold: anthracite coal. For millions of families worldwide, it was the gateway to sustain themselves during the Industrial Revolution. The work was secure, but deadly. Black-lung, cave-ins, gas leaks all killed and disfigured thousands and if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Unions fought for workers’ compensation, the standard work week, pensions, and vacations – things often taken for granted today.
As time and workers’ rights progressed, so did technology. Scores of men with picks and shovels along with blind mules hauled coal; eventually machines did the heavy lifting. Workers were laid off and fewer were hired. The industry trudged on.
United in coal, divided in philosophy
By the mid-1950s, global coal mining peaked. In the United States and Germany, miners who once fought each other in battle were back working in their mines. They were proud of their heritage fueling the world’s energy needs. But here is where the similarities cease. In Germany, mass protests broke out in response to layoffs. The government realized that coal was a dying industry. As more mines closed in the 1960s, the government consolidated them under the RAG Company (Ruhrkohle AG). They began planning a soft exit for the eventual demise of the industry to lessen the horrors of mass unemployment and subsequent political strife the country suffered in the 1920s and 1930s. Their goal was to retrain miners into other industries.
In the U.S., the government had no such foresight. Entire regions of Pennsylvania and swathes of West Virginia were left to fend for themselves. Since 2010, around 10,000 miners have been laid off in West Virginia. The result has been bleak. Many of the once-thriving communities have been abandoned. People leave for bigger coastal cities with more opportunity. Tax bases shrink; accountability suffers, corruption grows; brain-drain sucks the talent away from small- and medium-sized towns who desperately need young people and guidance into the 21st century. What remains is bitter resentment and distrust – of neighbors, of the government, of the “other”. Populism and fear grip the citizens as the country turns down a dark path.
The Germans knew this story too well. So, their government continued to subsidize miners in the Ruhr region until 2007. Berlin offered retirement and retraining deals. As of Dec. 21, 2018, the last mine at Prosper-Haniel in Bottrop is shut down, with plans in place to retrain workers to do other jobs, unless they’re over 50 years old – in which case they will be able to collect pensions immediately.
Meanwhile, in the US, the group Citizens for Coal continuously push US Congress to prop up the industry when they could be pushing Congress to help them retool for the future with new job training in the green economy, a point that US Senator Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called for. The current political climate has created false hopes for an industry that is and should be finished; when the automobile hit the streets, those who invested in horses were sent out to pasture. The German constitution requires the government to ensure equal living conditions around the country, to avoid regional disparities we see between the rustbelt and coastal cities. The goal is “to set up a durable, above-politics, non-partisan consensus that government should purposefully do what it can to aid adjustment in regions undergoing economic disruption and change.”
The idea of working a fulfilling career at a legacy industry or company and retire with a pension is as much a thing of the past as the 40-hour and five-day work week. So why do we keep pushing the idea of young laborers needing jobs in dying industries? Facing the reality of a green future means the need to retool people already in their career and prepare the next generation for these jobs in tech, green energy, electric transportation, and infrastructure. Finding talent in these unlikeliest of places – via out-of-the-box recruiting strategies – must happen.
Pittsburgh has made valiant efforts to transform its economy. Formerly dominated by steel production under the iron fist of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel at the turn of the last century, it nearly imploded when the houses of blue flame shuttered up. Pittsburgh diversified and tapped into new talent. And its residents who come from the world over have been creative in doing so. Many new startups have since popped up and made the smaller green economy viable and organic. Project RE_, for example, has successfully taken former prison inmates and trained them in construction skills to rebuild their community.
But what of those nearing the end of their career? Can they learn to code or join a startup whose oldest member may still be younger and more senior than them? The town of Bottrop, Germany, has been trying. The federal government and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia invested €90 million along with €200 million from private investors to modernize. Though more jobs are still needed, it removed many from welfare, reduced carbon emissions, and increased pride in their town. As such, the town is a model for change and has received more funding to reinvest in job creation.
Visit any old industrial place. Many former workers districts and former factories have been transformed into loft apartments, breweries, clubs, and coworking spaces. Gentrification is a label thrown around rather carelessly, but is a product of this shift as well. Remaining inclusive is the challenge. The key for the future of work is shifting people into careers they’re interested in and that are in demand. You, too, can shift your mindset to adapt to this reality, and turn to different and more creative ways to recruit employees.
US manufacturing – made in America
Perhaps the United States can take a page from the aforementioned playbooks. In the U.S., students are pushed into four-year degree schools instead of trade schools where valuable and almost always in-demand trade skills are learned. That topic deserves its own article. Looking to Germany, the manufacturing monster of Europe, they’ve successfully put young students into schools that generally match their interests. Be it medicine, academia, or manufacturing, students are aware of their options earlier.
A total of 1.3 million US manufacturing jobs have been created recently, a quarter of those in the last 12 months. Bureau of Labor statistics suggest that 500,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled. That’s a crazy number given the plight of students drowning in debt and cries of Asia and Mexico stealing jobs.
Greg Sheu of ABB, a manufacturing company based out of Switzerland but with US satellites, said the industry giants all “recruit, train, and retain” their workers. The private sector has done it. Now the federal government and the states must widen their focus to allow students to sample various career fields while supporting those who’ve made a decision, just like in Germany.
Sheu believes it’s a public misconception. ABB has created Manufacturing Day to showcase advancements and safety in manufacturing careers. And the work requires high-skilled labor rather than cheap low-skilled labor which could be outsourced abroad—the latter being the type of dangerous and deadly work that was abundant in the late 1800s. The potential benefits are access to the American middle class. Unfortunately, Sheu also believes most industrialized countries aren’t fully prepared for the forthcoming robotics-driven automation and artificial intelligence wave. Not surprisingly, Germany is in the top three—the United States, ninth.
Germany’s experience is one that can be followed by the United States and other countries: first, update school curriculums to prepare the youth for a robust choice of careers from academia and the arts to engineering and manufacturing. And second, industry and government must work together to recruit, (re)train, and retain as many people as possible whose jobs are either gone or soon to be gone. The latter approach is where you can step in as a recruiting professional.
A call to action is not enough. A path to action is best. Consider out-of-the-box recruiting strategies and creative ways to recruit employees. One path is to inquire with the National Association of Manufacturers to see what resources are available to meet your recruiting needs.
Work with your colleagues to find talent in the unlikeliest of places. Take chances on people who aren’t perfect on paper. Success lies with risk, progress, and inclusion. Why reinvent the wheel when others are rolling fast toward accomplishment?