Ask any service leader or executive to name their business’ most important asset, and they’ll undoubtedly say it’s their people. Not products or services, but the people who do the work, day in and day out. The search for great employees to sell those products and services and delight customers is a top priority even for leaders with fully-staffed organizations. Older technicians are nearing retirement and will pass the reins to a new generation.

But as field service organizations search for top talent, they’re experiencing a skills gap. The result? Managers often can’t find candidates with the right skill set, and some current employees lack the skills to work in an increasingly mobile, tech-savvy service industry.

Manufacturing, for example, is one arm of the service industry that’s feeling the talent shortage, partly because of a negative stigma associated with an older industrial era — rather than innovation.

“There’s a perception … that manufacturing is still in the Dark Ages, that there’s still people banging on metal with hammers and putting things together, and that’s not true,” Jason Prater, vice president of development at Troy-based Plex Systems Inc., a provider of cloud-based enterprise resource planning software for manufacturers, tells MiBiz. “Frankly, that perception infuriates me. We are world-class manufacturers, we are the leading-edge.”

Remaking Service Image from ‘Industrial’ to ‘Innovative’

Image innovationRecent graduates are looking to join industries that are seen as innovative and cutting edge, such as tech, and because of the reputation that manufacturing and field service have, those industries lack the ability to attract talent of up-and-comers who are seeking a professional career. Manufacturing is often seen as a dirty and dangerous job where there is no room for growth or professional advancement. Fifty-two percent of teenagers of teenagers say they aren’t interested in a manufacturing career.

Leaders in manufacturing and field service need to reposition their companies as creative leaders at the forefront of innovation. To get younger generations excited about service work and aware of its opportunities, schools are introducing sessions and speakers on STEM, noted Shahram Mehraban, global head of energy and industrial vertical segments and head of Internet of Things group at Intel Corporation, at a recent manufacturing and innovation panel in San Francisco.

To ensure the talent pipeline is full, service organizations are working alongside other organizations to develop industry-specific skills. “Many of the players in oil and gas have started focusing on ways to build a sustainable pipeline of talent through partnerships with institutions such as vocational schools and military transition programs,” Heather King, director of global talent acquisition at Cameron International, tells The Houston Chronicle. “Organizations also are starting to look to talent in other industries to identify transferable skills.”

A lack of talent becomes an even greater problem when veteran employees retire or start their own companies. As new technologies are introduced to manufacturing and service industries, organizations must invest in talent development to retain intellectual capital of employees. Many are training employees through video platforms and virtual reality, said Scot Allen, managing director of the Northeast manufacturing division at Verizon Enterprise Solutions, at the panel.

Appeal to Younger Generation

Part of reinvention is addressing the conservative nature of manufacturing. Often, organizations don’t introduce new technologies because they have the mentality that if something isn’t broken, then they’re not going to replace it. “They need to flip their mindset to think about the return on investment of adopting a new technology. It’s about preventative and predictive maintenance,” Mehraban said.

To provide a forward-looking image of manufacturing and service, listen to what younger employees want flexibility, new technologies, great company culture — and give employees the opportunity to lead, so they can develop skills to serve the company in the future.

“The bottom line is that U.S. manufacturing is not at a dead end, but at a crossroads – a crossroads where innovation, new technologies, entrepreneurial companies and big trends are paving the way for America to become a ‘Nation of Makers’ again,” Rebecca O. Bagley, president and CEO of NorTech, writes on Forbes.