Underneath the summer haze of a late July morning sits the region affectionately known as "The Lowcountry" — and I'm in the heart of it.
My travels take me to the Atlantic seaport of Charleston, South Carolina, known for its cuisine, historical significance and architectural splendor. But this is no tourist vlog. I'm on the outskirts of the city limits in nearby Dorchester County, invited to tour a pair of specialized manufacturing facilities ahead of August's jobs report.
HR Dive has always taken a nationwide and global view of the workforce in its coverage, and that includes our monthly 10,000-foot analysis of data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, it is also important, I think, to take advantage of opportunities that allow us to see what is happening at the ground level.
Employers I spoke to in the Charleston area face problems that are near-universal to employers in 2021, namely a scarcity of skilled talent, a challenging reopening during an ongoing pandemic and a changing economic landscape that could create even more shifts. In my visits, I learned how they've responded and how they're training for the future.
A pandemic playbook
Automotive part maker Bosch's North Charleston facility sits very much within the typical suburban office park setting, located a few minutes from the city's international airport. But if the surroundings are a little mundane, the location's interior proves quite the contrast.
Touring the production floor with Martin Majer, group leader of Bosch's high pressure gasoline injector division, I'm surrounded by whirling automatons and gadgetry — some of which, Majer tells me, utilize superheated lasers — and an ambient hum in the background from all that kinetic energy.
It's almost easy to forget I'm here to talk about humans. As Majer and I stop to peer into a window of a room housing a living room-sized contraption, he informs me that machines like this have significantly reduced the number of personnel required to make the facility's range of products.
"Back in the days when I started, production was a lot more labor intensive and a lot more manual," said Majer, an employee of Bosch for more than 20 years. "Technology has moved so rapid and so fast, and that is what I like about this plant."
For example, in the past, Bosch technicians running an assembly line would have called in maintenance personnel for repairs and part replacements. Now, technicians in the fuel injector division do much of the repairs themselves, and Bosch has added mechatronics training to further improve workers' ability to troubleshoot. "That really opens up the door to be able to react much faster, but still be able to keep up with the technology," Majer said.
Things have changed in the era of COVID-19, however. For starters, Bosch adjusted shifts to ensure employees could practice social distancing, according to Bernard Reese, Bosch Charleston's director of diesel manufacturing. The company also implemented remote work for certain positions, such as engineers.
"We realized we can still be very productive, and in some cases more productive, when we allow people to work remotely," Reese said. "The individual leaders need to decide within our organizations what [they] can handle [and] who comes into work what days … but this is something that we have started and that we will continue."
The company also experimented with changes to its recruitment process, hosting a drive-thru recruiting event. It's a format that saw success and has helped during a time in which Bosch is not yet ready to begin on-site interviews again, Reese said; "I'd be surprised if we were not going to do that again."
Skilled talent is often in demand here in North Charleston, Reese continued, due to the presence of large competitors. Volvo, Mercedes Benz and Boeing all have plants minutes away from Bosch. Unemployment in the Charleston and North Charleston combined area has largely rebounded from the revised 11.5% unemployment rate recorded in May 2020 to a rate of 3.3% in May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Historically, this hasn't been an area with lots of manufacturing talent," he said. "And so once that is dried up, the available people who are there, then of course you're down to where we are today."
Bosch supplements its local recruiting efforts with national and international recruiting as well as apprenticeships. Ideally, the company seeks operators with experience in a manufacturing environment to reduce lead times for training, Reese said. "But we've had to settle for people who have never been in the industry before. So someone coming from McDonald's or Amazon or whatever, yes, if we feel they are fit for our organization and what we're trying to do here, we will hire [them], but then it takes us a longer time to get them up to speed."
To make sure it's keeping pace with change, Bosch's training encompasses computer-based learning as well as in-person training with a mentor, Majer said. Once employees are able to perform at a base level, they can continue to train for more advanced pathways.
1 hour away, a different training priority
Heading west, my next destination brought me to the small town of Saint George, South Carolina, location of the U.S. headquarters for Canadian manufacturing conglomerate BID Group. This particular facility specializes in the production of sawmill parts. And if the company's latest investment is any indication, business is ramping up.
Unlike the enclosed Bosch facility, there's no air conditioning on BID Group's shop floor, which is noticeable due to the heat and humidity of a late southern summer afternoon. The roof overhead with two open ends reminds me of an aircraft hangar. I'm told by Pier-Luc St-Hilaire, BID's manufacturing operations manager in Saint George, the facility has rapidly expanded since its 2013 opening date.
BID Group in Saint George made it through the past year without major layoffs, according to Kathleen Nawrocki, the company's U.S. HR manager. "We had probably 20 people or so that I know of that did get COVID," she added. "They came back and said, 'oh, it wasn't that bad.'"
But the pandemic did cause other challenges in the workplace, namely between groups of southern U.S., northern U.S. and French Canadian employees. "The Canadians and some of the Northern folks were a little more cautious than some of the folks that were down here," Nawrocki said.
It was another instance of the need for cultural training and awareness in the workplace, a long-running challenge for Nawrocki during her time at BID. She mentioned her own adjustment moving from Pittsburgh to South Carolina. She found that BID's different employee groups also brought their own expectations around things like foul language use in the workplace.
"We had a training for all managers — U.S. southern, northern, French Canadian all got together," Nawrocki said. "We had somebody come in and talk to them about cultural awareness. This does not have to do with gender or race, this was just how to talk to one another. So we sat down and had a long conversation about how to address people."
Those sessions have led to some progress in getting employees to understand the glasses through which they see the world, to borrow Nawrocki's analogy. "I think there are still pockets of issues," she said. "We did have some growing pains there. But I think that cultural awareness has started to trickle out onto the jobs … it doesn't mean you have to like what they like or agree with them. It's just, be aware."
Having managers who are on board with ensuring the success of such training was "the most important thing," Nawrocki said. Managerial support can provide trust and support, and BID's managers in turn appreciate having HR provide advice on how to approach sensitive issues like pandemic protocols. "I spent a good two years or so earning their respect," Nawrocki added. "They are my ambassadors out there."