The current labor shortage is hardly a unique talking point in manufacturing circles. In fact, it’s something of a tired one; not because it doesn’t matter, but because years have gone by without meaningful progress, despite the issue being addressed by industry leaders, politicians, and countless media outlets. Unfortunately, manufacturers might face even leaner times in the near future.
Deloitte calculates 4.6 million job openings in the sector from 2018-2028 and predicts that only 2.2 million of those will be filled. The average time to fill a job opening is also on the rise, meaning that the skills gap is only widening at present. This is not just a problem for the many companies who are missing key workers – which puts customer service, order fulfillment, and production expansion at risk – but also for the entire global economy, which is facing losses in the tens of billions annually because of it.
Why does the skills gap exist?
If there were a simple answer to the question of why the manufacturing skills gap has become so drastic, it would undoubtedly have been uncovered by now. In reality, the problem is a complex one, with roots stretching as far back as the economic recession of the early 2000s and into the depths of social undercurrents and shifting workforce demographics.
Is there a lack of entrants into the labor market who possess the skills to succeed in manufacturing jobs? Research suggests otherwise and may even indicate that the entire narrative around the so-called “STEM crisis” is misguided. So why aren’t those workers applying for jobs in manufacturing? It may come down to one simple factor: perception.
Perceptions vs. the reality of manufacturing
Especially for people who have never encountered it firsthand, manufacturing tends to conjure up some unfortunate mental images. It’s seen as difficult manual labor; dirty, tedious, or both; an outdated mode of work; an inhuman process. Of course, all of these contain a kernel of truth. Many of the industry’s current workers, for example, are baby boomers, which can leave one with the impression that manufacturing is anything but the workplace of the future (and as they age into retirement, too much knowledge is leaving with them, which only exacerbates the skills gap).
These generalizations discredit the reality of the industry in 2020 and beyond. Modern manufacturing consists mostly of highly-skilled jobs that are at the heart of future economies, and these will likely underpin some of the most creative and inspirational innovations of the future. Skills alone don’t account for the big gap in manufacturing labor, in other words. Another – possibly even bigger – gap exists between how manufacturing is perceived and what it actually has to offer for those looking to make a mark on the world with their skills and knowledge.
The unfortunate result of this misperception is that manufacturing simply isn’t on the radar of many young members of the workforce – or those who will soon be joining it. For them, the future of work lies mainly in the digital sphere. They look to data and analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, edge computing, and other exponential technologies as the essential building blocks of the information ecosystem that they assume (most likely correctly) will serve as the foundation of the future world economy – while somehow entirely missing the fact that manufacturing is a key part of the cement that binds those blocks together.
In crediting perception as a major cause of the manufacturing skills gap, there is a temptation to blame those who hold them. In fact, the onus is on the industry itself to actively change those perceptions. That’s hard to do, though, in an industry that is a “long-tailed” market. Unlike big tech, which is dominated by a handful of giants that can afford to try and fail at anything, manufacturing is highly competitive across a broad landscape of players, especially in electronics, and the majority lack sufficient resources to tackle the problem of public relations at a significant scale. Marketing dollars – increasingly scarce – are almost exclusively directed toward attracting customers rather than talent.
In addition to the perception problem, investment in on-the-job training, internships, and other structured skills development suffered a massive decline during the past two decades (almost 40 percent from 2002 to 2013). This most likely isn’t because companies don’t see the value in keeping up a development pipeline but because purse strings have tightened in an effort to protect the bottom line.
Vision for change
Perceptions aren’t going to change themselves, and neither will PR, HR, or marketing budgets magically balloon, which begs the question: how can interest and talent allocation in manufacturing be restored? The answer might be for companies to do something radical – band together with those they compete with for customers and talent.
Numerous vehicles for just such a possibility, in fact, already exist. We know them as trade associations – such as IPC (Institute of Printed Circuits) and The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which represents over 14,000 companies in nearly every manufacturing sector across the U.S. Arguably, it falls to these associations and their member companies to tackle the perception problem together rather than separately. Where willingness isn’t a problem but ability is, heightened fees or special contribution requests could increase such associations’ budgetary allowance for public marketing campaigns. And it needs to go beyond advertising and PR. Trade associations and companies also need to work together to do things like securing booths at college job fairs and creating joint programs for internships to reduce the individual costs involved while allowing all to reap the benefits.
Hope for the future
Addressing manufacturing’s talent gap is a big challenge that has eluded a solution to date, but it’s important to remember that the skills gap can’t only be framed in “doom and gloom.” Just as crucial to the labor shortage is the fact that the demand for manufacturing has increased greatly following the gradual economic recovery after the 2008 market collapse. All things considered, the manufacturing outlook is more exciting than it’s ever been, and change is coming at the industry faster than ever, too. For leaders in the industry, now is the time to consider how we ourselves can implement change from the inside out in order to meet the needs of the future.