The Manufacturing Skills Gap: Four Strategies for Finding Talent in Manufacturing

Mackenzie Krott - Business Services Manager ·

Have you heard of the silver tsunami? By no means is the kitschy phrase new in the world of workforce development. Ten thousand baby boomers are retiring each day, and that number has been consistent over the past five years. The silver tsunami is no longer approaching, it is here.

While just about every industry feels the burden of this mass exodus of boomers from the workforce, the manufacturing industry faces the greatest risk of failing to adapt. In this article, we’ll offer a snapshot of the current and projected state of the manufacturing industry, and even more important, we will outline four implementable strategies manufacturing companies can use to overcome the skill gaps facing the industry.

There are more than 12 million manufacturing workers in the United States, accounting for 9% of the country’s workforce. The industry has seen a solid bounce back since the end of the Great Recession, adding over 800,000 workers in the last decade. Further, more than 50 percent of U.S. manufacturing companies plan to increase production by more than five percent over the next five years. As the industry continues to strengthen and expand, companies need to be able to locate high-quality talent to fill vacant positions created by retiring boomers and economic expansion.

Why is it so much harder for manufacturers to find new talent than other industries? For years, manufacturers have acknowledged the skills gap that exists between the talent they need and the talent they can find. Now, more than ever, that gap is widening, and it’s time for manufacturers to catch the wave and adjust.

A study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, with an estimated 2.7 million coming from retiring boomers and another 700,000 due to natural business growth. Nearly 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled due to the skills gap.

General Electric CEO Dr. Charles (Chip) Blankenship states in the study, “We cannot fully realize the renaissance of U.S. manufacturing unless and until we solve the manufacturing skills gap. Manufacturers are the key to solving this problem. By aligning together and clearly defining their needs—and speaking with one voice, they can work with secondary and post-secondary schools and government to create a system that attracts, develops, and retains skilled manufacturing talent.”

Below are four strategies manufacturing companies can utilize to successfully ride the wave of the silver tsunami, and overcome the skills gap facing the industry:

1) Increase focus on work-based learning opportunities

  • For high school and college students: Work-based learning provides opportunities for students to discover career paths and navigate career options. By offering hands-on experience in a manufacturing setting in the form of job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships and subsidized work programs, manufacturing companies can help shape students’ career pathway, introduce them to the manufacturing field, and potentially identify potential new hires.
  • For current employees: Manufacturing companies must realize the importance of upskilling and promoting within to fill critical positions. Federal dollars are sometimes available for companies to use, an example being incumbent work funds, which can be utilized to reimburse the cost of training current employees.
  • For the unemployed or underemployed: Seek out hands-on, work-based learning opportunities from local workforce partners such as an American Job Center or a community college. A great way to upskill is to attend boot camp training focused on a specific industry, such as manufacturing or healthcare. This type of model involves intense training for a short period of time (usually 6 weeks). The end goal of the program ensures that participants secure employment upon completion of the program.

2) Strengthen relationships with educational partners to create talent pipelines

  • Partner with local community colleges, technical training programs and high schools to build a future pipeline of skilled workers. Manufacturing companies that are highly engaged with local education partners have a much higher chance of cherry picking top grads to fill vacant positions.
  • Assist educational partners with curriculum development and highlight the key competencies manufacturers need in entry-level employees.

3) Evaluate Your Company’s Institutional Knowledge

  • When employers lose lifelong employees, they lose a lot more than meets the eye. “Without a plan or program to transfer business processes, institutional policies and practices, and historical knowledge to someone else, organizations may be faced with severe business continuity and knowledge issues.”
  • Spend time documenting job profiles, processes and work flows to capture the essence of each key position within the company before the employee leaves.

4) Help change the perception of manufacturing to attract younger workers

  • In a recent poll, 52% of teenagers stated they had no interest in working in manufacturing, with two thirds of that group perceiving a manufacturing career as being dirty and dangerous, as well as a job that requires little thinking or skill.
  • Manufacturing companies have a responsibility to reshape the public’s perception of the industry. By participating in national and local initiatives, manufacturing companies can help the public become more familiar with the changing industry. A great example is the National Association of Manufacturers’ yearly Manufacturing Day, which recently had 1,600 events take place nationwide, with over 250,000 attendees.

There is not one single solution to the skills gap issue facing the manufacturing industry today. Manufacturers must take a step back and rethink hiring and talent solutions, and most importantly, they must intensely collaborate with community partners. Is your company ready to ride the silver tsunami wave?