Whenever I meet with human resources leaders, I like to ask about the purpose of their business unit. What do they do? Often, they’ll come back with tactical responses about recruiting or culture.
Those things are important, but they can diminish what HR really does.
Because, like any other organizational department, the primary goal of HR is business success. It’s just that HR’s unique contribution is through workforce planning. If you, as a manufacturer (or, in fact, any STEM employer), don’t have the right people, the most amazing company plans are doomed to fail no matter how well those plans are thought out.
That means HR must focus on the talent market with the same strategic eye used by other departments, creating business plans that factor in future stressors and disruptors. Even for industries facing talent shortages (like millions of manufacturing jobs sitting idle by 20301) and what’s being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the biggest disruptor right now is employees themselves.
Employees have changed. Years of a living-to-work mantra are giving way to a new employee ethos, one where families are being prioritized over jobs. Data from a University of Michigan study shows how that’s historically played out in STEM, with more than a quarter of men and women leaving the STEM field after becoming parents. The data about men and women, said the lead author of that study, “highlights that parenthood in STEM is not just a mothers' issue; it's a worker issue.”2
Make family support a cornerstone of the workforce planning processes. A recent eBook shares how employers can address a variety of caregiving challenges.
That should be instructive to HR, especially as the industry takes on shortages. Think about it: a mid-career Millennial who opts out today because your company experience isn’t hospitable to families does more than leave a space on your roster; it removes an important demonstration of career possibilities for working parents who could come next. That’s an impression that will show up in hiring for years to come.
By establishing your company as an employer who gets it — one with a culture that compels people to stay long enough to develop their competencies, eagerly learn new skills, and connect to you in a way that promotes long-term engagement — you have an opportunity. But to do that, you’ll need solid answers to questions employees are asking about work and families right now.
Will I be able to work and take care of my family? Child care is the obvious concern since roughly 40% of the workforce is made up of parents,3 and 40% told our recent Modern Family Index that they don’t have the child care they need.4 Still, family care isn’t just a child care issue. Today’s workplaces are notably multi-generational, each with its own family responsibilities that drive whether employees stay or go. So answering the question about caring for families will require benefits that accommodate help for infants, older children, adults, and even pets.
What if I don’t work a 9 to 5 schedule? STEM employees don’t work on a single schedule. So, family services must be carefully thought out to reach all employees, from the shop floor to the corner office. That’s particularly true for companies where outside-the-lines hours are part of the job. As the customer care director at an electric utility put it, “When we have weather events, we show up.”
Will I find the family care I need in my facility’s remote location? An oft-cited Center for American Progress statistic says that half the country lives in a child care desert.5 It’s true — but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Center capacity is only theoretical if there aren’t enough teachers to staff it — an even bigger worry in rural areas. That means to truly answer employees’ need for help, smart employers like Hormel Foods are doing more than merely pointing employees to resources, but creating and ensuring the supply is actually there to meet their needs.
What about my career plans? New research from Bright Horizons Workforce Consulting shows that current STEM employees would factor educational opportunities into job change decisions. Yet more than two-thirds of parents of young children (under age 6) say child care is holding them back from career growth. Such concerns make benefits such as child care and education a carrot for recruits, a support for skills, and an antidote for employers who will also need those skills to keep up with STEM’s rapid-fire advancements.
Lars Minns, Mercedes-Benz North America CHRO, explains the unique ROI the company's child care center offers: “I think if we have one or all families saying to us, ‘Thank you very much for this great benefit,’ that’s a significant return on investment that a dollar amount can never measure.”
The above answers are especially important for women. As I’ve written before, today’s successful women at your company show what’s possible for tomorrow — advents that will become even more important as talent-challenged manufacturing and STEM fields count on a more balanced workforce to fulfill their staffing needs. “We’ve seen a significant retention when I think of the families that are here,” says the CHRO of Mercedes-Benz about the power of the company’s child care program, even in talent-challenged Atlanta.
And think about the flipside — if a valuable hire finds that work and families at your company don’t mix, your loss is another employer’s gain. Asked what he’d say to CEOs who might be on the fence about offering child care, one CEO with a center replied, “Well, we’re going to be able to hire their talent.”
What’s clear is that recognizing people have families (and providing the support they need to care for them) is an act that has clout. Smart companies, led by forward-thinking HR teams, are already making family support a cornerstone of their workforce planning processes. Your company brand, its strategic growth goals, and your shareholders’ gains are depending on it.
Want to Learn More?
Manufacturers Alliance's on-demand webinar, Current Sustainable Workforce Trends to Capitalize On with Mindi Vanden Bosch, Vice President of Operations at Vermeer Corporation dives into each of these questions in more detail.
Opinions expressed by contributing authors are their own.
Senior Director, Solutions Strategy, Bright Horizons
Alice Lindenauer is a member of the Bright Horizons Workforce Consulting team and works with clients to establish the right form of corporate-sponsored child care to promote engagement, boost productivity, and drive sustained business results.
She previously led the global HR function for Hamilton Lane, a private markets asset manager. As a member of its executive team, Alice was involved in corporate acquisitions, divestitures, joint ventures, regional expansions, and a successful IPO. Alice began her career in the financial analysis and business management areas before shifting into HR leadership when she was asked to reinvent SEI Investment’s HR function, creating the Workforce Development Team.
1 Adam Grundy, “Manufacturing Faces Potential Labor Shortage Due to Skills Gap,” United States Census Bureau, September 29, 2023 https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2023/09/manufacturing-faces-labor-shortage.html
5 “3 Ways Federal Investments Can Address Child Care Deserts in America,” Center for American Progress, June 2, 2022.