Moving into a Manufacturing HR role


I've got the opportunity to work as an HR Advisor in a high volume manufacturing company (retail products) with approx 3000 employees. 

I'd welcome any comments or observations about an HR role in this environment as I haven't worked in manufacturing before. My backgroud has been in telecoms / IT as well as Public sector (Local Govt and |NHS) - both in HR Advisor and Business Partner roles. 

Thanks in advance for your comments. 

Kind regards, 


  • I spent the first 10yrs of my HR career in a manufacturing role looking after 1500+ employees. It involved a massive caseload for absence, disciplinary and grievances the softer side of HR, employee engagement, talent management and Health and Wellbeing were very much on the back seat.

    Culturally it feels a little brutal compared to other organisations and I can only put that down to if they stop producing there is a very clear and very measurable effect so pressure is high.

    Within manufacturing if a single person isn't there to put their widget on the part they are instantly missed and someone else has to be found and who is trained immediately. In an office if someone isn't at work for a day then in most cases things can wait.

    I absolutely love the face paced high pressure environment but as soon as that begins to define you as a HR Professional it's time to move on.
  • I have worked in a few manufacturing environments and my current role covers some manufacturing. I love it, its busy, challenging and no day is ever the same. Its not an environment for everyone, it can be a constant merry go round of investigations, disciplinary meetings and grievances along with attendance management meeting. Oh and if recruitment is included in your job description this is also a constant. If its a 24 hour operation be prepared to hold meetings a odd times to fit in with workers shifts.
    You will most likely work with union reps and i have worked with some great one down the years and some not so great.
    My advice if you do go for it is be a presence on the floor get to know some of the staff, i have met some great characters through the years, and the gossip from the floor can play out like a soap opera on occasions.
  • Congrats on the new role Mark, it's a great opportunity to learn how different environments call for different ways of providing an HR service.
    In traditional manufacturing, the environment is often hand to mouth and short time frames. By hand to mouth I mean that that margins are usually tight so there is a focus on the "now" and how costs can be contained or even "constrained". Many customers of manufacturing companies now function on the basis of "just in time" deliveries - on the other hand the manufacturer cannot afford to carry excess unordered stock in the warehouse to be able to respond immediately with a delivery.... This means that the production process must be "agile" and anything that disrupts it (staff absence, sub-optimal operation of production lines and equipment...) can have a significant financial impact in the very short term.
    Someone once described it to me as "being in "sprint mode all of the time". They also said that in this type of environment decision-making speed is critical and it is often better to take 10 decisions quickly with 3 wrong decisions, than to take 10 correct decisions that are too late for the decision to be useful.
    Ususally the business levers are operational excellence, and cost control so HR needs to find how it can contribute positively towards those levers in the SPECIFIC context of the company.
    Hope these musings help
  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    10 Mar, 2021 10:22

    Thanks for posting, Mark.

    Keep those interesting responses coming... :)
  • Hi Mark,
    I have spent a lot of my HR career in manufacturing and logistics and agree with all the other replies so far.
    As others have shared, you tend to spend the majority of time managing absence, performance and conduct issues. What you may find is that the managers are under a lot of pressure to meet the KPIs of the operation and people management becomes something that does not get the attention or effort required. So I would really make an effort to learn the operational side of things and build good relationships with the managers, and understand what the managers are responsible for, so if you do get faced with absence not being managed or conduct cases being delayed, you have a good relationship to be able to have effective conversations when the people side of things are not going as well.
  • In reply to Steve Bridger:

    Hi Steve, I'm seriously impressed with the responses - they give a very clear picture as to what manufacturing is like from HR. Is there a way I can post something to say thank you? Thanks mark.
  • Think you just did that Mark
  • I have been in manufacturing for the last 12 years. It is a such a lovely proud feeling to be out and about and be able to see the products your company have made. I have even got excited about car wiring looms which I can honestly say, before I started at that particular company, I didn't even know looms existed! I have also been known to take pictures of our products in use when I have been on holiday abroad and then send back to the company to share.

    Workload wise, I echo all the comments already made. It can sometimes feel that you are back in the land that time forgot. The environment can be a little dated (unless it's a swish new factory) and some managers can tend to have a view of HR as purely transactional however this is less prevalent now but there is still a significant amount of time spent in disciplinary, performance and absence matters. As Tracey states, recruitment is just an ongoing headache. The last two years for me have been a constant round of shift changes, restructures and recruitment. Having said that if you have a good Management team around you they will be able to handle a lot of the 'small stuff' so you will still get to be more proactive i.e. health and wellbeing measures,employee development etc.

    Costs are always tight. Highest quality at lowest cost is the mantra, Be prepared to be able to present cost v benefit for anything you want to do/introduce. I have been fortunate that most of my MD's have, on occasion, accepted we need to do 'it' whatever 'it' may be because it is the right thing to do even if I can't demonstrate a tangible benefit to the bottom line. Relationships and trust are vital but that is true of anywhere.

    Time is always against you and production is always priority. Getting time out for people to do any sort of formal training is nigh on impossible, unless you can manage to get them to do it as overtime. I always schedule training for the weeks when the holiday requests are below the levels agreed and yet I still have had to cancel more courses than I care to count due to a rush order or sickness etc meaning that person can no longer be spared. It is not that the company don't want to invest in people or stop the course taking place, just the customer has to come first.

    Meet and greet groups are a good way to meet the shop floor (but that is obviously a bit challenging at the moment and with the size of your workplace). I have always found it is a useful way to start seeing who are the influencers and who are going to be useful in terms of feedback. Equally you will get a good feel for those who might be more challenging! Even if you can't do the meet and greet, it is useful to have a regular presence on the shopfloor. People are more likely to come and ask you things when you are on their territory than come to the HR office. An old Yorkshire saying comes to mind though 'Hear, all, see all and say nowt" I learned the hard way that any comment of mine could soon be spun into something way more fanciful.

    Everyone tends to be related to everyone else as well (and not always obvious relations) so mind what you say! It is way more soapy than Eastenders/Coronation Street and Emmerdale put together!
  • Hi Mark,

    I think this is a cracking career opportunity for you, especially in a HRA role which will provide you with generalist exposure across all aspects of the business, and the opportunity to engage with various levels of stakeholders.
    I did my bread and butter learning in this type of role whilst studying the CIPD and it was the perfect platform. It doesn't suit everyone because of the pace, agile thinking and flexibility required - if you prefer to work in silo's this won't be for you!
    Getting those widgets off the end of the line and out of the door on time will be at the heart of everything you do, which can work against you at times, but that said, make sure you spend plenty of time in the heart of the operation - on the factory floor, it will keep you close to the operation and its a great place to build credibility, especially during those early days.

    Enjoy it and have fun!! It will definitely keep you busy.

    Hope that helps.
  • In reply to Ginnie:

    I also loved manufacturing albeit I was lucky in that it was mostly food and drink so even more exciting than wiring looms.
    Part of the pace is likely to be semi-regular redundancies which i would say is useful and fulfilling but can be wearing.
    My note of caution is that be careful lest you get labelled and find it difficult to get out of. There is a degree of prejudice about it and recruiters and their algorithms tend to pigeon-hole people.
  • In reply to Peter Stanway:

    Food and Drink manufacturing, peppered with some2nd tier automotive is my background too. I have to say, I love this sector and I do believe that if you can survive and thrive in this sector, you can take this experience anywhere.
  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    11 Mar, 2021 10:37

    In reply to Mark:

    Wot said ;)
  • Hi Mark,

    Congratulations on your new role!

    I have been in manufacturing environments now for about 7 years and there's no doubt it's a challenging environment for HR! It's way out of my comfort zone as well but the reality is that if you are confident about your processes, it can be extremely rewarding at the same time. Unlike many other responses here, I work for a small family-run manufacturing company and I'm the only HR person. My role also encompasses H&S/facilities and I think the great value I get from this is that I'm not just seen as someone to go to when there's an HR problem. If there's one piece of advice I can give, it's to demonstrate that you are there to help and support and to make life easier for managers. This last year, our main HR challenge has been the fact that some of us can work from home and some can't. The divide between factory and office workers has always been there and I have had to work hard to show that we understand that we can't treat everyone equally, but we can work together to find a fair way round these issues. I have one manager in the factory who harks back to the good old days when everyone was just told what to do and flexibility wasn't even a word......

    In short, HR work in a manufacturing company is that roller coater cliche where the lows really are low but the highs - when you achieve something, get through to someone, resolve a really difficult problem - are really really high!

    Good luck with the next steps :)
  • In reply to Alun:

    I can certainly agree with this response. We are trying to have better engagement and that seems to be happen with White Collar workers. Unfortunately, Blue Collar workers have taken a back seat. Have also found that drive isn't there. We have tried to develop talent, but they want to do their work and go home. Would this be a fair assessment with Performance Management and Talent Development with anyone else?
  • I worked for an aviation manufacturing company and if you want to learn the ER side of things the high vol disciplinary, grievance, absence is brilliant for your development. Hopefully it is unionised because working with Trade Unions was a blast, we had rows in the hearjngs, cup of tea afterwards. If you can develop a great working relationship and have “corridor” conversations, it can be a less belts and braces approach but getting results. I hated unions before K worked with them, because I was brought up to believe they were all unreasonable and no care for company profitability. I spent 3 years hanging by the seat of my pants. Best job for development by miles. Enjoy it but there’s the odd day of hellishness when you nay want to ditch the job, but they are few and far between if it’s a good place to work. Amazing job loved it. .