Replenishing the Ranks


Ask a high school senior or soon-to-be college graduate about the career they intend to pursue, and its likely that lubricant manufacturing will not be at the top of the list. Faced with an aging workforce and a potential skills shortage, some companies have taken the initiative to make lube production an attractive profession for young workers.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the total U.S. workforce at roughly 156 million workers in 2018. Of these, the cohort of younger workers aged 20 to 34 years old (which includes millennials) made up 49.4 million workers, or 32 percent of the total workforce.

In comparison, workers ages 35 to 64 made up the majority of the manufacturing workforce in the U.S. in 2018, at around 10.2 million workers. About 4.4 million younger workers aged 20 to 34 years were employed by manufacturing companies, roughly 28 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

Industries across the U.S. have reported difficulty in finding skilled workers, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. The organization conducted a survey of 539 small to large manufacturers in the fourth quarter of 2018 and found that roughly 68 percent of respondents named the inability to attract and retain workers as their primary business challenge.

In addition, 77 percent of respondents reported that their companies had positions they were struggling to fill, and nearly 29 percent said they were unable to take on new business and experienced loss of revenue opportunities due to workforce constraints.

Retirement of baby boomers is one of the main reasons positions are opening up in manufacturing and leading to a skills shortage, according to the Manufacturing Institutes 2018 Skills Gap in Manu­facturing Report, behind introduction of new technologies/ automation and negative perceptions from students and their parents of the manufacturing industry.

The Manufacturing Institute, the advocacy arm of NAM, projected that 2.69 million jobs in manufacturing will open up over the next decade due to workers retiring, compared to 1.96 million new jobs generated from business growth, but estimated that 2.4 million jobs will go unfilled in that timeframe. As a result, a persistent skills shortage could risk $2.5 trillion in economic output between 2018 and 2028, with $454 billion of manufacturing gross domestic product at risk in 2028 alone.

Filling a Void

Retirements seem to be looming especially close for lubricant companies, as three sources in the industry pointed out to LubesnGreases.

Workers across various industries have delayed retirement for reasons that range from companies doing away with pension plans (forcing people to work longer to have savings) to the availability of company-provided health insurance, noted Curt Knapp, chief operating officer of sales and supply at Omaha, Nebraska-based Warren Distribution.

I think it does talk to the aging of our workforce that more and more people are getting to that point [of retirement], said Knapp. He added that Warren Distribution has had eight retirements since March 2018, with three of the retirees having more than 27 years of experience at the private-label distributor.

Retirements are also on the mind of Jeremy Henry, director of operations at aftermarket automotive maintenance supplier BG Products in Wichita, Kansas. Henry anticipated that between 10 and 12 percent of the operations workforce of BG Products will be retiring in the next three to five years.

He said the company has worked on lining up people from its current workforce for promotions so that when retirements occur, there isnt a vacuum. Its a huge process to plan for these retirements. It doesnt start the day they retire; it has to start now, Henry stressed.

Julie Schiller, executive recruiter at Dallas-based Milani Group, noted that her clients have approached her about filling positions due to retirements or in anticipation of retirements. She said that the biggest difficulty is finding a way to pass on the knowledge to a person who is taking over a retirees role, as well as finding the right combination of skills for different roles.

Schiller added that she frequently needs to find candidates for roles catered to early- and mid-career professionals. I dont often get requests for entry level, but I do have a few companies in specialty chemicals that are recognizing that it could be beneficial to find the people with the right degree, and if they have one to five years of experience that they can build on, maybe they can do that internally, she explained.

Building Interest in Manufacturing

Making a career in the lubricants industry appealing for younger workers is a challenge that both Warren Distribution and BG Products have taken steps to address.

In Wichita, for example, aircraft parts manufacturing is significant competition for BG Products. Henry mentioned the need to increase the appeal of lube manufacturing, which is an industry that in his opinion requires a long-term investment and doesnt offer the immediate rewards that younger generations tend to favor.

To communicate what a career in manufacturing could look like, Henry said that BG Products has begun an informal initiative to reach out to high schools and community colleges in the area. He said he is proposing that the company provide part-time work to high school students to expose them to manufacturing.

Warren Distribution has taken a similar initiative of outreach to educational institutions by partnering with local organizations to approach the student population at high schools, trade schools, community colleges and even grade schools. Knapp said this is a way to create awareness and give students the tools to make a more informed decision when they are deciding what to do after graduation.

We tend to have really good retention, so that puts a little less strain on the hiring engine, Knapp said. But you always need to replenish the ranks. Theres always going to be some attrition at the shop floor level. I dont think in our industry you ever have enough trade to do electric and maintenance work, so were always looking for people to get started on those tracks.

Additionally, the distributor revamped its careers website within the past year to include company history, job postings by area, statements from current employees and video testimonials from staff across different jobs. [Video] is a medium, and its an approach that we think is the way that the younger people want to learn about things, Knapp pointed out. Also, they want authenticity. I think our videos come across as, These people are being authentic about their view on the job and their view on the company.

Both BG Products and Warren Distribution hire high school graduates for production line jobs while considering college-educated candidates for warehouse management, supply chain logistics and quality control positions.

The Manufacturing Institute has also established its own initiative to help manufacturers reach younger generations. Called Dream It. Do It, the program provides guidance to manufacturers on appointing ambassadors within their companies who can help expose more students to careers in manufacturing.

The organization recommends that the ambassador be under the age of 26 and hold a degree or certification in a manufacturing-related field, while also emphasizing the selection of ambassadors who are women, veterans or early in their careers in order to represent a group that is relatable to youth, reads the guide.

Reaching out to younger workers also means the lubricants industry as a whole can educate people about the larger-scale issues that matter to them, especially when it comes to environmental concerns.

Speaking about sustainability in a panel discussion at the ICIS World Base Oils & Lubricants Conference in London, Apu Gosalia, vice president of sustainability and global competitive intelligence at Fuchs Petrolub SE, noted that companies need to be better about tearing apart the notion of lubricants as dirty, ugly and oil based. He urged attendees at the February conference to communicate directly to younger generations about the efforts the industry has made to curtail emissions and increase use of biobased materials.

Growth Opportunities

In general, the lubricants industry grows slowly, but Knapp of Warren Distribution said his company has managed to expand its footprint (including opening a blending plant in Houston last year), providing opportunities for growth in a flat market. When youre growing and when youre building, naturally it provides some flow. When youre stagnant or contracting, that limits the flow.

BG Products, on the other hand, focuses more on fostering a culture where you can grow, said Henry. He added that small and mid-size companies allow people to have more impact across the different parts of the lubricants production chain compared to larger distributors or manufacturers.

Because of the retirements at BG, Henry is also anticipating a shift in company culture and working to adapt to it. He doesnt mind if applicants have a short resume, as long as they are willing to put in the work to learn on the job and collaborate with other workers.

Schillers recruitment approach has been to prioritize networking with people who are either new to the lubricants industry or early-career professionals. She labels herself as a sort of ambassador, reaching out to let people know that theres a lot of potential opportunities that could be coming both for professional growth and learning.

Compensation is something that early-career people put a lot of weight on, but Schiller advised looking at the bigger picture. These companies and these opportunities…what is exciting about them is not just a job, it is really an opportunity for growth potential. She said that companies recognize that giving mentorship and training is important to make technical and commercial leaders successful.

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