How to build a better future for manufacturing workers

May 2, 2022
The Industrial Commons' training program Industrial Sewing provides foundational skills for quality jobs and contributes to ensuring the strength and resilience of local textile production. Photo by Franzi Charen.||

Sara Chester is Co-Executive Director for The Industrial Commons, a North Carolina-based incubator that founds and scales employee owned social enterprises and industrial cooperatives, and supports frontline workers to build a new southern working class that erases the inequities of generational poverty and builds an economy and future for all.

The conversation around the future of work is often focused on knowledge work, not on manufacturing, which, with over 12 million workers, employs 8.5% of the American workforce

At The Industrial Commons, we're based in a region of North Carolina where one in every three people work in manufacturing—so we're thinking about the future of work for manufacturing workers. We're launching and incubating new manufacturing jobs with an emphasis on equity, environmental sustainability, and community wealth by building worker-owned social enterprises. We are reimagining the future of work, so workers have the opportunity to grow as people within the workplace and be supported in their career.

Here's how we're building the next generation of manufacturing companies—with workers at the forefront.

We're building a fresh mindset—at the local level

At The Industrial Commons, we're trying to build off the manufacturing DNA that's already woven into our communities, but in a way that caters to the current and future needs of workers. We're connecting businesses for greater resiliency, like the Carolina Textile District, a member-governed network of values-aligned textile manufacturers. We're also teaching business principles like open book management and coaching supervision to help companies train workers for the future of work. With a lot of manufacturing companies, which are often older and have legacy structures, the culture is so ingrained. Some manufacturers still use “point systems,” where workers are fired if they get a certain number of “points” and workers receive points for things like being late. Using a point system is a decades-old practice but an outdated one. It's challenging for these companies to change; it's like turning around an oil tanker.  

These legacy manufacturing companies are often headquartered outside of the communities—at national or global offices. There is often little opportunity for local decision making. At The Industrial Commons, we're building more local ownership. The terms “incubator” and “start-up” have real direct connotations to Silicon Valley. We're an incubator working with start-ups, but we're building a diverse workforce in the industrial and manufacturing space—with a focus on worker ownership and building community wealth. Not only is this new for the manufacturing industry, it's also a worker-centered approach to the future. 

Changing a workplace culture is hard. It takes time. One local company we work with, Meridian Specialty Yarn Group, decided a few years ago they wanted to change their workplace culture to lure more potential employees and reduce employee turnover. With our technical assistance they created a Worker Committee, a space for frontline workers to take on leadership roles, raise new ideas and implement company wide improvements. It has taken two years but has been very successful—stabilizing the hiring process and reducing turnover by over 20%. And it should be noted that improving the quality of jobs can also be costly. 

It's very expensive for companies to offer the many benefits that workers want and need. Mental health counseling, physical health programming, strong PTO and vacation polices, competitive health insurance—those benefits are not cheap. From an employer side, there has to be a strong commitment to improvement. We work with a lot of companies aligned with those values who want to do more for their employees and can't make it work financially. That's why we organize networks like the Carolina Textile District to find creative and collective ways to tackle some of these issues. We're also baking these benefits into the companies that we incubate from day one, so we can build more secure manufacturing jobs that meet the demands of the workforce. 

Listen to your employees 

If workers talk about what a quality job means to them, employers and institutions have the opportunity to build these jobs and invest in the benefits and qualities of work that help contribute to an employee's satisfaction, wellbeing, and growth. 

We listen to our employees through a program called the “learning cohort.” In one of the sessions, we explore and discuss the characteristics of a quality job beyond just good pay and good benefits. It's amazing what happens when employers listen. Workers want to be at a place where they are valued, have a voice, are treated fairly, and can show up while bringing their whole selves. 

Manufacturing has traditionally been very focused on the physical aspects of the job. We've found that young people, in particular, crave problem solving, creativity, and innovating. In manufacturing, we need to reframe the actual work of manufacturing so the employers can see their employees as entrepreneurs on the front lines, and vice versa. Workers should be seen and see themselves as critical contributors to improving the productivity of manufacturing: creating better processes, better flows, and working with the relevant teams to tweak machines to improve the product or work.

Because of these conversations, these manufacturing workers have the opportunity to be creative problem solvers and to utilize their critical thinking skills to think like entrepreneurs in the workplace. It's an exciting seachange we've witnessed, especially as manufacturing has become more automated and workers need to use those critical thinking and problem solving skills to be successful in the workplace.

Provide transparency in the workplace

All of the companies we incubate and scale use open book management. In open book management, the employees have access to the financials. They know the profitability of their company, the profit margins, and the expenses, and how these metrics of business health change over time and by certain business decisions. 

Because of this insight,  employees better understand “the why” behind certain workplace decisions. They can see, for example, the line item that shows that a more robust insurance plan could cost $500,000. Open book management engenders more trust between workers and management. The average worker thinks their company has a 36% profit margin, but the median across all industries is 6.5%. Showing employees this data and the decisions that shape their day-to-day work makes a big difference.

We find that open book management works especially well with younger manufacturing workers who are very interested in the why—they want to know what is happening in their workplace and why. Previously, at other jobs, when a worker is moved from one production line to another, there is little explanation. Through open book management, we can show workers the why—because it's better for both the company and the worker—and show them how it improves the bottom line. We've found that workers like to understand the rationale behind decisions and feel more empowered as workers as a result. 

Ultimately, we're trying to incubate manufacturing companies that provide good jobs and help build community wealth for the next generation. We've seen a lot of businesses come and go in our community over the years. Manufacturing work in rural communities can feel extractive—some factory workers will leave work on a Friday and the job will be gone by Monday. Our workers and our community are excited about creating businesses that are rooted here. And not just for them, for future generations of workers to have access to a quality job too.

About the Author
Sara Chester

Sara Chester is Co-Executive Director for The Industrial Commons, a North Carolina-based incubator that founds and scales employee owned social enterprises and industrial cooperatives, and supports frontline workers to build a new southern working class that erases the inequities of generational poverty and builds an economy and future for all.

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