Manufacturing's Workforce Crisis

According to the National Association of Manufacturers' latest Outlook Survey, 90% of manufacturers are optimistic about their company's future.  Yet the same survey also found 70% of manufacturers expressing serious concerns about their ability to find skilled workers capable of maintaining the momentum of the industry.  This gap between open jobs in the manufacturing sector and the number of workers able to fill them represents one of manufacturing's biggest challenges in the next decade.

A 2018 report published by the Manufacturing Institute shows that the manufacturing skills gap is expected to result in as many as 2.4 million unfilled jobs between now and 2028. In turn, more than $2.5 trillion in manufacturing GDP could be at stake. That's right, trillion. These "skilled positions" require specific training or skillsets and often take months to fill.  They include everything from digital and supply chain personnel to production workers, researchers, engineers, software developers and operational managers.

The Institute's report indicates that positions often go unfilled as a result of the negative perceptions of the industry (45%), the notable shift in desired skillsets due to the introduction of advanced technologies (36%) and the retirement of the baby boomers that previously occupied these positions (36%). Over the next few years, the inability to fill open positions is expected to have the greatest impact on the growth of manufacturing companies.  With a limited workforce, it will become challenging for manufacturing companies to satisfy growing customer demand and respond to new market opportunities.

Fortunately, manufacturers are already using a variety of approaches to mitigate the expected shortage, from adopting learning and development programs, to creating short-term project opportunities for recent retirees.  As an added measure, 83% of companies surveyed also reported that they are prepared to pay more to attract and retain skilled talent. 

Manufacturers must continue to be proactive but also think long-term in their approaches.  Attracting a diverse cohort of workers with a wide breadth of both knowledge and experience can only be beneficial, as artificial intelligence and robotics are expected to transform the industry in ways yet to be seen.  Developing human-machine collaboration as well as training programs that engage a multigenerational and diverse workforce will be vital to their success.

Organizations that support manufacturers should take heed as well, including schools, technical programs, businesses and policymakers.  As STEM programs pop up in schools across the country and more businesses offer hands-on apprenticeships to students, the potential for positive change far outweighs the risk of stagnation.

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