US labour shortages: Hard work finding the staff23 March 2023
With the US facing labour shortages, supply chain issues and even talk of a recession, several businesses in the overhead crane industry describe what they are doing to help not only their customers, but themselves too. Tony Rock reports.
The US is suffering a labour shortage. According to the latest data from the country’s Chamber of Commerce, which represents some three million businesses, there are more than ten million job openings in the US – but only 5.7 million unemployed workers.
Speaking about the issue in an article on the organisation’s website, Stephanie Ferguson, the US Chamber of Commerce’s director, global employment policy and special initiatives, says: “We hear every day from our member companies – of every size and industry, across nearly every state – they’re facing unprecedented challenges trying to find enough workers to fill open jobs.”
Ferguson says several factors have come together to cause the ongoing shortage. At the top of the list is Covid-19.
“The pandemic caused a major disruption in America’s labour force – something many have referred to as ‘The Great Resignation’,” she says. Put simply, Covid-19 caused many people to reevaluate their lives, and either retire, cut back on their hours, take time out – perhaps in order to acquire new skills or education – or change how and where they worked.
“We have nearly three million fewer Americans participating in the labour force today compared to February of 2020 [the start of the pandemic],” adds Ferguson.
Other factors at play include having to stay at home to care for children or other family members, looking for higher salaries, and ill health – for example, a recent US Department of Health and Human Services report said that while estimates vary, research suggests that between 5% and 30% “of those who had Covid-19 may have long Covid symptoms, and roughly one million people are out of the workforce at any given time” due to the condition, in which effects of the disease continue for several weeks or months.
What can firms do to counteract a labour shortage, and the impact that has not only on their remaining employees in terms of a potential increased workload, but also on their ability to meet their business targets?
Rob Beightol, director of marketing at overhead crane firm Gorbel, says that companies that are continuing to struggle to attract and retain skilled labour for their production work are looking for ways to “do more with fewer personnel and are relying on crane and hoist companies to provide solutions to enable them to do this”.
Beightol says this might include adding additional lifting and positioning equipment whenever manual work has been the norm; ensuring that lifting and positioning causes minimal strain on workers in order to protect them from injuries and keep them performing the job; moving from a multiperson operation to a single person set-up – allowing for redeployment of personnel across the facility; or changing the set-up of work cells (an arrangement of machines, personnel and materials required to manufacture a product) or lines.
Beightol adds that while “working with end users to solve particular challenges has always been the norm… we have seen more ‘consultative’ work with our distributors and end users in order to address issues related to the lack of skilled labour”.
“Our distributors are well-versed in problem-solving work,” he continues, “so pinpointing the exact pain point being experienced by the user is an initial priority in the process.”
Another solution businesses could consider when tackling a staffing crisis is automation.
“Automation is continuing to be a trend in our industry,” recognises Ron Piso, sales manager at overhead crane firm GW Becker, which he says has “embraced the changing automation needs of our customers”.
“We are working with our customers and prospects to fill the gaps in the cranes we manufacture, be it developing tiers of automation or engineering a new/different way to utilise the equipment we are providing,” he says.
THE SAME PROBLEMS
The overhead crane businesses are, of course, experiencing the same issues with labour as their customers.
Richard Phillips is an associate mechanical engineer at Casper, Phillips & Associates (CPA). In addition to being engineering consultants who help specify crane purchases and perform design reviews to make sure the crane meets the technical requirements, the company also designs cranes themselves.
He says that with fewer staff in the workplace, the competition for new recruits is even greater.
“Everyone is very busy, and it’s getting difficult to recruit college graduates,” he begins. “Many young engineers don’t really think to go into the crane industry, so we are not only competing with each other for talent but we are competing with all the engineering industries to recruit college graduates.”
In the past, CPA’s approach to recruitment would have been to place job openings on local college boards. “But we are not getting the results we used to,” admits Phillips. The solution? “We decided we need to do more and are attending career fairs at local universities. Luckily, we live in an area [Tacomah, Washington] with three nationally ranked engineering colleges.”
With competition for staff fierce, Phillips outlines the reasons why a prospective employee might want join the company: “They will constantly be challenged – no two projects are the same; we cover the cost for our employees to become licensed professional engineers including any license renewal fees; we have a great quality control programme that makes sure new engineers will succeed; and we also work in the container crane industry and work with a lot of ports, which gives our employees the chance to travel for world.”
Phillips continues: “We [also] have the ability for the entire office to work from home. While our work is generally collaborative and it is best if we are all in the office, sometimes a snowstorm comes rolling in and driving to work is too dangerous, so we work remotely that day. It also gives our employees a way to sit at home all day while they wait on an important package or have car problems that prevent them from being able to come into the office.
“Also, we had a pipe burst this winter, it flooded the office and prevented us from being able to work [there]. Obviously, we couldn’t shut down our office while it was being repaired, so the ability to work from home was huge.”
Gorbel’s Beightol says, however, it’s not only a case of thinking about what you can offer a new staff member; it’s also about considering how they might fit in with the company’s philosophy: “How an individual ‘behaves’ is valued extremely high within the organisation,” he explains. “Every employee must exhibit certain behaviours in the areas of integrity, personal growth, and creating a positive environment (to name a few). So, if a prospective employee places a great value on how exhibiting certain behaviours cannot only shape their opportunity but also impact the company as a whole, Gorbel may represent that perfect fit.”
Kevin Beavers, executive vice president at Ace World Companies, an overhead crane and hoist manufacturer, agrees that it’s about finding the “right person”.
“This business is thriving, and job security is pretty high,” he says of a company that increased its manufacturing space last year when it acquired a 180,000ft2 facility in Clinton, Tennessee. “There are lots of opportunities in different types of positions. It would be an awesome opportunity to learn a very interesting business – we are always up to training the right person.”
It’s not just a lack of staff that has been impacting operations, as Beavers, explains: “Supply chain issues have definitely been a challenge,” he says. To address the issue, Ace World Companies has been projecting and planning ahead for incoming projects so that it can purchase the supplies it needs for the cranes and hoists it is to build.
Beightol at Gorbel recognises the potential impact of “supply chain disruptions” too.
“Speed and reliability have been at the forefront of our success,” he begins. “By working with us and our knowledgeable distributor network, users can be up and running with a new crane and hoist within a very short window. We are constantly working to keep that window as short as possible so that customers are productive as quickly as possible after their decision to purchase has been made. While 2022 certainly presented challenges in this area due primarily to supply chain disruptions, efficiently providing the exact crane and hoists to solve particular challenges remains a top priority for our company.”
CPA’s Phillips, meanwhile, acknowledges that “it can be difficult to get spare parts”.
“Plus,” he says, “it is very tough to predict the volume of goods that will need to be moved through the facility. With talks of a potential recession, it is difficult to [judge] demand. After a couple years of huge demand, it’s not certain whether this will keep up, plateau or slow down.”
CPA takes a two-pronged approach to meeting such challenges.
“We talk through the challenges with our clients and suggest ideas based on their needs and projections. We take the uncertainty into account and try to offer them flexible and scalable solutions,” Phillips says.
“We [also] have an extensive network of partners in the crane industry. We know which suppliers let the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] put their logos on their parts and can often get the exact part from the original component supplier without an OEM label. Depending on the part, we can design replacement parts that a local machine shop can build. If the part is consistently failing we can design a more robust part as a drop-in solution.”
While – as stated at the start of this article by the US Chamber of Commerce’s Stephanie Ferguson – staffing shortages and supply chain disruption are serious issues that can affect all businesses in any sector, Mike Sparks, sales director industrial products North America at Dellner Bubenzer, highlights a threat that is industry-specific.
The company designs and manufactures industrial/safety braking systems for cranes and hoists, and Sparks says there is a lack of emergency brakes within the US and North American market.
“This is practically a standard within the European market as well as a firm standard in the port sector,” he adds.
Sparks identifies three challenges crane operators face: a lack of standards calling for the design of an emergency brake solution; a lack of room for a proper installation of an emergency brake solution; and a lack of end user acceptance/ understanding of the need or, an inability, to secure proper funding.
A wide range of solutions are available, however, says Sparks, and he recommends that crane operators arrange site visit from a product specialist that can offer “engineering/ sizing support and customised solutions for special demands”.
If you could give a customer one piece of advice, what would it be?
“When it comes to solving lifting and positioning needs within your facility, don’t try to do it on your own. Reach out early in the process to the manufacturer or distributor so that all possible options may be considered based on the particular application.”
Rob Beightol, Gorbel
“Know your needs and be educated on the product. Know the importance of finding the right crane or hoist for your application. This piece of equipment can have a significant impact on your production.”
Kevin Beavers, Ace World Companies
“Challenge your vendors/partners to provide you with the best they can offer.”
Ron Piso, GW Becker
“Compare apples to apples when purchasing from vendors. The apples-to-apples comparison is the complete package and not just the product design. The customer must consider the full support the vendor can offer including engineering, design, installation, stock, etc.”
Mike Sparks, Dellner Bubenzer
“Don’t go with the lowest bid. Create a shortlist based on qualifications and negotiate with the company you think will give you the best product. You still have plenty of leverage because you can walk away to another qualified company on your shortlist.”
Richard Phillips – CPA
What are the most important considerations for a customer when choosing a supplier?
“Choose a supplier with quality products that it stands behind – that offers service and support.”
Kevin Beavers, Ace World Companies
“The ability of the supplier to be a true partner and provide sales, engineering and installation support; availability of materials within the local market; overall product offering as well as quality of offered products.”
Mike Sparks, Dellner Bubenzer
“Reliability and meeting their increasing expectations.”
Ron Piso, GW Becker
“With many decision-makers being so stretched as far as daily responsibilities are concerned, they are looking for reliability and trust. They are relying on manufacturers and their distributor partners to be the experts in the field, and rely on them to supply systems that address their specific needs and perform at a high level no matter the application or environment.”
Rob Beightol, Gorbel