Why Appealing To Digital Natives Is Non-Negotiable For Today’s Auto Industry

The Automotive Shortage That Won’t Go Away

Forbes Business Council publishes article by Actify CEO Dave Opsahl

CEO at Actify, Inc., helping manufacturers to build some of the world’s most complex and advanced products.

It’s interesting: In certain areas, auto makers and auto suppliers are among the most technically advanced organizations in any industry, with a very sophisticated level of automation. Think of the robots auto manufacturers have been using effectively for decades.

But there are other areas of the auto industry, like program management, where if you rub at the surface a bit, the antiquated past stares back at you, rather than the brave new future. Automotive program managers at suppliers are responsible for making sure components are developed and delivered to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on time and on budget. And in many cases, they do this using Excel spreadsheets or other systems in use since the 1980s as their primary tools.

Needless to say, this “old school” approach isn’t a great fit with today’s digital natives, who were practically born with smart devices in their hands and are comfortable with Zoom, Teams, Google Docs, instant messaging and other mainstays of a modern work environment.

How can auto suppliers expect to find and retain the employees they depend on, given the growing chasm between their employees’ technological expectations and the reality that so often awaits them?

An Urgent Problem

The new crop of program managers has seen with their own eyes what kind of technology is available today, both in their personal and professional lives—and they expect their employers to give them powerful, user-friendly, modern tools that will make life easier.

If an auto supplier doesn’t provide tools that are going to assist their automotive program managers in carrying out their daily duties, those companies aren’t just going to experience turnover—they’re going to find it difficult to get people in the door in the first place. The automotive program manager position is stressful enough without the added burden of dealing with clunky technology every day.

This dual recruiting and retention challenge becomes a matter of urgency when you consider that many of the most seasoned employees at auto suppliers, with decades of institutional knowledge, are retiring out of the workforce and finding other things to do. In order for that expertise to be replaced, suppliers don’t just need to replace bodies: They must find different ways of working. Using a spreadsheet supplemented by heaps of institutional knowledge isn’t going to cut it. Suppliers are going to need a higher level of technology.

The Way Forward

So, practically speaking, what can organizations do to address these challenges? How can they up their technology game while appealing to digital natives when it comes to recruiting and retention? There are several easy ways to get started.

First, an important question on any employee survey is: “Do you have the tools you need to do your job?” If you’re not already collecting this data point in your employee surveys, start now.

Tip number two for auto suppliers: Make a roadmap for your technological future. It’s one thing to say “We don’t have great technology today, and we have no concrete plans on how we’re going to improve things.” It’s quite another to say, “We don’t have great technology today, but we have a plan to change that, and here’s exactly what that roadmap looks like.” That’s a far more compelling story for existing employees and potential hires to engage with.

A good first step on that roadmap: Any auto supplier would benefit from enterprise visualization that allows their members to work in 3-D, rather than the 2-D world of text and part numbers. When team members across the organization have access to 3-D information, communication happens faster, collaboration is richer and comprehension is deeper. This is a first step that is quick and easy to take, and it delivers immediate impact.

Meanwhile, how do you sell this effort to management to actually get the ball rolling? Using information from independent sources that talk about the current state of program management and how much more challenging it’s going to get over the next few years is invaluable here.

For example, a recent report by Lifecycle Insights (sponsored by my company) found that 39% of program managers still track program status through manual data entry and physically printed documentation. Even when managers use high-tech file-sharing solutions like the cloud, as 74% do with some frequency, the data they are sharing is still entered manually, a laborious process which must be done on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. At the same time, 59% of program managers stated they were pursuing improvement within the coming year, particularly given the rising complexity of automotive program management, including a rise in the number of OEM customers and a rise in the volume of programs to oversee.

Translation? Beyond making employees happier and appealing to digital natives, there is a compelling business reason for suppliers to upgrade the technology they provide their program managers if they hope to do more than tread water moving forward. (Full disclosure: My company provides technological solutions for manufacturers, as do many others.)

Final Thoughts

Many areas of automotive manufacturing have been automated and upgraded, but pockets like program management remain in the digital Dark Ages. If suppliers hope to attract digital natives to these very challenging positions that they absolutely depend on, they’ll need to make sure they’re providing the technology to match. As it stands, too many suppliers are asking program managers to make like it’s 1985 on the technology front—and as a result, they’re losing the war for talent.

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