FORT SMITH -- The covid-19 pandemic heightened problems attracting and retaining workers and exposed weak links in the supply chain, local manufacturing leaders said.
They spoke about the challenges during a panel discussion on the state of manufacturing in the region at the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce's First Friday Breakfast earlier this month.
Heidi Raynor, human resources generalist for Trane Commercial Systems, said the pandemic will create major changes for manufacturing going forward. The issue of employee retention is receiving more focus now, a trend Raynor believes will continue.
"So we're going to have to get creative on drawing those people in and keeping them in," she said.
Michael Barr, president of WeatherBarr Windows and Doors, said his business has grown significantly over the past five years and is severely impacted by its ability to attract and retain employees.
Employers said it was becoming harder to find workers to hire prior to the pandemic, forcing wages up, Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas' Walton College of Business, said Thursday.
However, the pandemic changed a lot of behavior, Jebaraj said. People might have been out of work as the result of the prolonged nature of the pandemic last year while older workers retired earlier than they might have otherwise. Retired workers may reenter the workforce, Jebaraj said, but it's unlikely to happen in high numbers.
Some people have reassessed what they want to do with their lives while out of work, which shrank labor force participation too, he added.
"Some people have come to realize that they could live on just one income if they have two people working in the household. And other people might have realized that they can do with much less money than they thought they needed, and so might be working only a part-time job or something like that," Jebaraj said.
Other people still worry about the pandemic and aren't likely to return to the labor force until they feel it's safe, he said.
The panelists also discussed the need for workforce development to ensure a manufacturing labor pool in the future.
Andrew Welch, director of operations for Rheem Manufacturing, spoke about the need for incoming workers to have practical skills, such as problem solving, to go along with their ability to process advanced equipment.
He said the community could focus on such practical skills and make sure potential workers know there are opportunities in the manufacturing sector that can lead to them having "meaningful work."
"I think one of the greatest disservices to my generation was the way we communicated to people who are now in our 30s that you had to get that college degree to be successful, and it's absolutely false," Welch said.
Raynor stressed the importance of teaching children about possible career and educational pathways in manufacturing.
Like the workforce, the pandemic spotlighted issues with the supply chain, the industry leaders said.
Welch said current challenges in Rheem's supply chain is teaching the company to use data more broadly to anticipate how certain issues involving lower-tier suppliers might affect the company.
Barr said WeatherBarr also experienced supply chain issues, although nothing significant. These issues, which have come about due to factors outside the pandemic as well, have caused the company to manage its relationships with its vendors more closely to make sure it understands where potential shortages are going to come.
Jebaraj said he believed the pandemic brought issues in the global supply chain to a head that might have been brewing for a long time. This includes a shortage in truck drivers, which had been an ongoing issue covid-19 exacerbated. Another aspect more directly related to the pandemic includes ports and manufacturing facilities in different countries being closed to attempt to control it.
Jebaraj also thinks companies placing large orders for goods outside of when they would typically do so because of shortages they saw coming are putting additional pressure on the supply chain.
"All in all, I think a large portion of the issues would be dealt with once the pandemic is under control, not just here in the United States, but very much so with our global supply chain partners," he said.
The manufacturing sector employs about 16,800 people in the Fort Smith metropolitan area as of August.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics