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The Changing Scope of the Site Manager Role

by Dale Young

Dale Young

Site Managers are highly sought after manufacturing professionals. Over time, we’ve noticed the scope of the site manager role changing, and thus, conducted research to understand the impact on remuneration levels. We tracked the salary of site managers over the last five years and discovered a significant increase in line with the evolution of the role.

There are several factors that are attributed to this increase, including a requirement for tertiary qualifications, an enhanced level of commercial sophistication to drive efficiency and reduce costs, and a shift in the leadership skills required. The implications of this change for businesses is significant. Top talent ‘hold the cards’ in the ‘employment relationship’ and businesses must work hard to attract and retain that talent when demand outweighs supply.

Dale Young and Stephen Montague, Managers of the Six Degrees FMCG Engineering & Operations Divisions in Melbourne and Sydney, Gerard Lourey, General Manager – Manufacturing & Stewart Green, Head of People Business Partnering at Murray Goulburn and Simone Anderson, General Manager of Operations at SunRice offer their insights on the changing role of site managers in the Australian context.


 Dale Young and Stephen Montague, Six Degrees Executive.

How do you think the role of site managers has changed over the last five years?

As a mandate site managers have always needed very strong leadership skills and this is very much still the case in our current environment.

However due to the rise of automation there has been an increase in demand for site managers with an engineering and continuous improvement background in order to understand the technical intricacies. Our clients are finding that site managers with a technical background can get the most out of all core functions on the site; capital, quality, safety etc.

“Technical skills are in high demand due to the rise of automation.”

We are briefed on more roles with a mandate to have a mechanical engineering or engineering degree with less openness to site managers that have progressed from the shop floor.

The commercial responsibility of site managers has increased. Site managers must now be able to demonstrate the ROI of capital projects and are often required to build business cases that demonstrate this to senior management. This requires a portfolio of other skills such as:

  • Internal stakeholder management
  • The ability to influence
  • Financial acumen
  • Presenting at an executive level.

Overall, the calibre and experience that is expected of a site manager today has pushed the salary up. Since 2010 we have seen a 14% decline in the number of site managers getting paid under $150,000 with an increase of 10% of site managers being paid over $200,000

What reasons can you attribute to the increase in salary for Site Managers?

There are a number of contributing factors for this rise:

  • A greater need for site managers to cut costs and ensure the operation is lean.
  • The expectation on delivery is much higher due to the extremely competitive nature of the manufacturing landscape. Businesses expect increased performance, with reduced costs. They are asking less people to do more and there is a need for higher calibre talent to do that.
  • The majority of briefs we receive from our clients mandate a qualification, specifically, a degree qualification in engineering or technical discipline.

The above factors have significantly narrowed the talent pool, and due to this, competition for top talent has led to an inflated market where businesses are having to pay more to attract and retain their site managers.

What challenges are business facing in attracting and retaining top site managers?

The manufacturing workforce is ageing and young talent is not as drawn to a career in manufacturing as some other industries. Some feel the role of a site manager in manufacturing is not sustainable. The role is challenging and demands a lot. It can be an all-encompassing job especially on a 24-hour site.

Mining and now construction offer better remuneration and balance.

“Manufacturing is no longer the first-choice career for high calibre talent”.

However, it is not all bad news, in our experience the businesses that are attracting the next generation of high calibre talent are those with:

  • A strong brand reputation
  • Rotation programs with structured learning and development
  • A clearly defined career path that is mapped two to three years in advance
  • Collaboration and a business that invests in their site operations as opposed to a focus on sales and marketing.

Gerard Lourey & Stewart Green, Murray Goulburn.

How do you think the role of Site Managers has evolved over the last five years?

Traditionally all you had to do as a site manager was to know everything about a plant to ensure it was running effectively and efficiently. The role has transformed into a business management role, where you are akin to a mini-GM responsible for a business.

“Site Managers have become akin to mini-GMs, who need to look at a site holistically”.

Site managers now need to have some knowledge of all elements of the site and finance.

They need to understand the site holistically as a GM would a business.

The other critical change is around leadership. How the site manager leads the site and the team, is crucial to success. How do they coach, mentor and model in order to get the best out of the team?

What are the skills and traits you view as most important in a Site Manager for your business?

  • Leadership skills
  • Stakeholder management
  • High level communication skills
  • Financial acumen
  • Safety
  • Environment
  • Decision making (quick but well-informed)
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Intuition to hire the right people for the team
  • Empathy, authenticity, compassion and a genuine nature

There is so much going on, on a site these days that you need the right people in place to give you the information you need to be able to make well informed decisions, fast. So, although you need a level of financial acumen, what you really need is a good finance person to tell you what your numbers mean.

“Leadership is the single most important skill for the site managers of the future.”

It's a really dynamic world and a lot has changed. The above skills and traits are all important but what is more important is building a team that you trust and then tapping into them and how to get the best out of them.

Does the modern day site manager feel more pressure today given how the role has evolved than they did five years ago or even 10 years ago?

Yes, although that's life, it's not just business.

In all my time as a site manager I never really knew what we were manufacturing from a cost point of view or sales point of view. At Murray Goulburn we've become a lot more transparent.

Our site managers can see that they are essentially running businesses that turn over millions of dollars. I would never have known that all those years ago, I would just think "I'm just doing my day to day tasks".

“Site managers have gained a lot of respect due to their increased responsibility.”

Due to this, site managers have gained a lot more respect which probably wasn't the case six or seven years ago.

What is a great career path for someone looking to get to Site Manager?

I don't think there is any defined path. If you want to be a site manager do the job that you are currently doing really well. If the path was too clearly defined, we would be pigeonholing people.

The way that Murray Goulburn operates is we have functional structures and we almost replicate that at the site. We don't discriminate from one functional area to another or in any other form. If there is an opportunity available, we promote it business-wide and are more than happy to take cross-functional applications.

How does your business identify high potential talent?

Over the last six months we have rolled out a leadership program through all functional areas which allows us to identify high potential talent and have career discussions with them.

For us it's not really about ridged progression through a particular functional area. If people have particular behavioural characteristics, attitudes or transferrable skills that are valuable in other functional areas, then we are happy to give them an opportunity. We don't think we pigeonhole.

We have lots of hidden gems at Murray Goulburn and our front line leadership program is identifying high potentials and will give them an opportunity.


Simone Anderson at SunRice

 How do you think the role of Site Managers has changed over the last five years?

There has been a recognition that leadership skills are every bit as important as technical skills and I see us recruiting more carefully for clear leadership attributes.

I also see this role as being a talent pool for future business developments and as such we tend to look for more commercially skilled individuals who are capable of a sideways move into a commercial role or an upwards move into a GM role.

“Leadership skills are every bit as important as technical skills.”

What are the skills and traits you view as most important in a Site Manager for your business?

  1. Leadership skills – a leadership impact model will be helpful to recruit a constructive style leader who has high EQ and learning agility.
  2. Understanding of change management – many businesses are involved in some form of transformation programme and modern site leaders need to have experience with this and more importantly know how to apply it.
  3. Commercially savvy – most site managers are now going to interface, more than ever, with colleagues in sales and marketing and need to be a business partner in these circumstances. Partnering with sales and marketing colleagues to help them understand the agenda at site level through an operational lens will be vital.
  4. Manufacturing experience – In FMCG they have to understand the levers of SCQDM: safety, cost, quality, delivery, morale.

What is a great career path for someone looking to get to Site Manager?

I divide this into two categories the ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’.

“Site managers must have production and people management experience.”

Must have:

Production management and management of people is essential. I would not appoint a site manager without this experience in their tool box.

Nice to have:

  • Time in a more strategic led role.
  • Pathway through engineering can be an advantage.
  • Pathway through quality is also a route but must have some time in production management.

What do Site Managers need to demonstrate to take the next step in their career?  

  • People leadership
  • Politically savvy
  • Commercially savvy
  • Ability to think strategically
  • Thought leadership - have shaped and delivered against a challenging business issue that they have personally worked out.
  • Ability to work up and down an organisation - so good influencing and collaborative skills.

How does your business attract the best talent?

“Talent Magnets - great leaders attract great people”.

  • Flexible working is becoming more and more important: working from home, working 3 or 4 days a week, longer holidays (even if unpaid).
  • A clear career path.
  • Good solid development programmes.
  • Aussie owned and run from Australia with the freedom to act and make a real difference.
  • Working in Asia.
  • Positive culture.

For more information on the evolution of the Site Manager role please contact Dale Young on (03) 8613 3503.