The current administration made bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. a central tenet of its governing platform. However, according to most recent figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, there is already a surplus of unfilled jobs already in the manufacturing sector — an estimated 364,000 jobs to be specific. That number is at its highest since 2006.
Why are so many manufacturing jobs going unfilled? It comes down to the massive disruption that has occurred in manufacturing technology since the recession, according to experts. Today's talent lacks the skills required to complete manufacturing tasks in a computerized world.
Some experts assert that this was something that U.S. companies should have seen coming and planned for years ago. Now that the impact of that lack of forethought is a reality, however, employers in manufacturing sectors are faced with a pressing problem: how to fill all those jobs.
An effective long-term solution is likely to include some combination of on-the-job training programs, apprenticeships, vocational education programs and worker certifications, according to industry experts.
Why are we facing such shortages of manufacturing skills?
Mitch Free, chairman and CEO of ZYCI CNC Machining and founder of MFG.com, the world’s largest online marketplace for the manufacturing industry told HR Dive that much of the skill gaps that are happening now in the manufacturing sector can be attributed to a lack of available education. Because of his extensive involvement in American manufacturing and global trade, Free is a respected expert who was selected by the Clinton Global Initiative to help develop strategies to revive American manufacturing.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there were an abundance of trade schools geared towards manufacturing careers. When companies began to offshore to cut costs, and laid off hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers, the trade schools shut down. Now, companies are scrambling to find ways to bring talent in and train them through alternate means, such as apprenticeships.
“We skipped an entire generation in manufacturing,“ Free said, adding, “The workforce is made up of an older demographic of workers in their late 40s and 50s, so we have a small window of opportunity to transfer their skills and create new programs that teach workers new technology that they need to succeed.”
In addition to skills barriers, manufacturing recruitment challenges also stem from perceptions about those jobs and a lack of focus on training. Chris Hobbs, reliability solutions manager at Advanced Technology Services (ATS), a global leader in manufacturing solutions told HR Dive, “The cause of the current skills shortage in manufacturing is two-pronged. First, trades and vocational career paths have a stigma around them and traditionally haven’t been a major focus in high schools or college prep courses. Next, manufacturing is at a crossroads for this situation. Manufacturers have recently shifted their strategy to focus on their core competencies, which in most cases is engineering and manufacturing rather than maintenance.”
Hobbs agreed with Free that, “more veteran members of manufacturing are dwindling through retirement attrition.” Hobbs also advised that a lot of this went unnoticed until the scales tipped too far because advanced training wasn't prioritized.
Is the answer to the talent shortage certificate programs?
This is something that experts cannot 100% agree on, perhaps because of different types of manufacturing require varying degrees of specialized skills. Free told HR Dive that he thinks that a good knowledge of math, combined with strong mechanical ability and digital skills should be enough to make an individual suitable for a career in manufacturing.
Some manufacturing jobs can benefit from hiring talent with certifications, Hobbs said. “Three very popular certifications right now are for set-up technicians, control technicians and multi-skilled maintenance technicians ... Set-up technicians are relied upon to set up the machines and new jobs in order for the operators to initiate the cycle of the machine and ensure it is still operating. Control technicians are mostly specialized in automated controls in process industries. Multi-skilled maintenance technicians are especially in demand these days because manufacturers have invested in engineers and financial personnel and have now had to recalibrate their thought process concerning the need for maintenance,” he said.
In this case, having certifications can prove to employers that an individual is dedicated to being skilled in multiple areas.
Hobbs agreed with Free that these skills shortages went mostly unnoticed until the tipping point, when the unskilled workforce outnumbered the experienced, skilled workers. It wasn't until then that manufacturers started noticing the impact of their current strategy. In addition, apprenticeships and training, in general, weren’t prioritized like they had been in the past, and the ability to train in-house became almost nonexistent.
What are the best ways to offer certifications or training?
Certifications and training can be part of the same solution to skills gaps. Hobbs and Free both advocate for approaches that include multiple approaches to building workers' skills.
“Blended learning programs. These programs start with well-defined assessment testing that is then reported on in detail, with analysis that looks at skills gaps by individual, value stream, facility and disciplines. Once these insufficiencies are identified, a process-driven blended learning development plan is implemented, with gate reviews, benchmarked milestones and deadlines that are designed and communicated for and to individuals,” Hobbs said.
Free advises that in addition to outreach with public schools, colleges and trade schools, “manufacturing employers must be willing to invite people in to learn more about the career opportunities that exist in manufacturing and then have programs in place to train them on-the-job.” Free also said he sees a lot of promise in apprenticeships and alternative training methods.
In the future, manufacturing will take on an even bigger role in the job market if more companies return to U.S. soil to resume operations. It’s up to educational centers, recruiters and manufactures to continue to work together to align business growth with training initiatives so that labor shortages are corrected in this generation.