Executive Recruiting Blog

EFL Associates insights on executive recruiting, talent management and succession planning.

May 10, 2019

The Talent Gap Crisis - Is Manufacturing Sexy Enough for the Next Generations?

By: Leslie Shaw

Posting $6.2 trillion in annual revenue and producing 18.2% of the world’s goods (IBISworld), the manufacturing industry is projected to return to growth mode over the next five years with only medium revenue volatility. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) 2019 1st Quarter Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey reports that 89.5% of manufacturers have a positive outlook for their companies. Whether small, medium or large in size, manufacturers remain optimistic about business conditions overall.

So what’s all this talk about a crisis?

While the NAM Survey paints a clear picture of optimism, it also points directly to the #1 industry worry – talent shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing employment accounts for 12.8 million jobs in the U.S. Yet, currently about 452,000 manufacturing positions remain vacant across the nation – a staggering statistic. Manufacturers saw this coming more than two decades ago as the retirement of the baby boomer generation began to impact the industry. Compounding the loss of experienced workers, the introduction of new manufacturing technologies, the industry’s persistent image problem and the cultural shift in the demand for work-life balance have catapulted the talent shortage to the industry’s top challenge.

Meeting the Problem Head On

Twenty-first century manufacturing has significantly evolved since your grandfather's factory experience, but that update has not been fully shared with the coming-of-age workforce. Career education with students, administrators and school counselors should deliver the message that manufacturing careers provide highly computerized opportunities that are well compensated with good potential for career growth.

With projections suggesting the possibility of a widening talent gap over the next 5 to 8 years, manufacturers are tackling the problem head on by retraining current employees and recruiting for technologically adept, well-prepared future employees.

Manufacturing organizations and companies across the U.S. are appropriating significant dollars into training programs such as journeyman and apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships, co-op programs and plant tours are effectively battling a negative image of the industry as low tech and out of date.

“Seeing the machinery in action and the product possibilities—from thimble-sized precision bearings for the Mars Rover’s vacuum pump, to shined-up chrome wind turbine bearings tall enough for an NBA player to walk through—can get a mechanically minded kid’s pulse quickening,” noted Stephen Johnson, Director of R&D at the bearing maker, Timken Company, in an exposé by IndustryWeek.  

Still, many feel students in high school are receiving one of two messages from guidance counselors: 1. go to college and earn a four-year degree or 2. get a job in retail. According to Justin Welner, Vice President, Human Resources, Spirit AeroSystems, today’s youth are not being educated on alternate employment solutions. He believes “Vo-Tech” has to be presented as an acceptable alternative. A global leader in aerostructures design and manufacturing, Spirit AeroSystems offers high school, trade school and college internships and has been adding a variety of jobs as part of a five-year expansion, including sheet metal assembly, composite fabrication and CNC machining.

Employers are partnering with regional tech schools and leveraging governmental funding such as the Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s Skill UP program, which has provided funding toward adult programs, workforce training providers and economic development partners. 

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) points to apprenticeships as the solution to developing and retaining a skilled workforce. Indeed, manufacturing apprenticeships can pay as much as $60,000 to develop high-demand skills. DOL offers an extensive array of resources online for career seekers and employers.

Many apprenticeship programs offer a path from high school through degreed programs. For example, high school students in the Timken apprenticeship program can work toward their associate’s degree at Stark State Community College, and once that’s complete they can jump into their junior year at Akron University to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Trade organizations have jumped in to support member workforce development, leveraging industry expertise and online delivery to provide employee competency development and retraining programs. The National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA) Workforce Development programming offers a good example of maximizing the reach and efficiency of online training and partnering with related initiatives like the National Robotics League.

Colleges and universities have jumped into this space in a big way, offering programs, funding options and employment connections across a range of industries, including manufacturing. Wichita State University’s WSU-Tech features career guidance, coursework and certification options. Through their JumpStart program, high school students have the opportunity to take transferable general education courses and career and technical education classes.

Justified Optimism

Manufacturing is an essential component of gross domestic product – $2.33 trillion in 2018. That drove 11.6% of U.S. economic output, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Manufactured goods comprise half of U.S. exports. Even as AI enters the picture, the industry must have a pool of skilled labor. The responsibility to prepare the next generation of talent lies with both the public and private sectors.

Nationally, the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board has been constituted by President Trump to engage the government, business and education in discussions that address the urgency of the skills crisis. The Board is expected to form working groups and will meet quarterly in Washington. WSU Tech’s President, Sheree Utash, has been tapped for her extensive experience in program development and knack for forming industry partnerships. Attending the inaugural meeting in March, Dr. Utash stressed the importance of elevating technical training and certification to a level commensurate with any program of higher education. (See opening remarks and briefing statements here.)

Increasingly, the industry is fine tuning efforts to recruit millennials by highlighting the advanced technologies that drive modern manufacturing, focusing on career development and investing in retraining, internships, apprenticeships and certification programs.

As American manufacturing regains growth footing, opportunity abounds. Stepping into a good paying job or exciting career in manufacturing, often with no student debt, should look like a pretty appealing future.

Your team for additional information

In today’s competitive environment, recruiting strategy is a critical aspect of a manufacturer’s business plan. Don’t hesitate to contact Leslie Shaw with questions or to share information on training programs and related initiatives in manufacturing or topics for future issues of this newsletter. You can reach Leslie directly at 816.945.5416 or lshaw@eflassociates.com.   


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