In short:

  • Manufacturing firms seeking to launch new products are stymied by a shortage of skilled workers, our survey shows
  • Automation won’t solve this skills gap problem — yet
  • One answer is building an alliance with technical schools while focusing on making jobs attractive to digital natives

In our survey of 118 manufacturing decision-makers, 75% cited a focus on creating new products as a way to increase revenue. Doing so typically requires both engineering talent and skilled technicians to tool up the shop floor for new products.

In the current hiring market, it’s the skilled technicians that are in short supply.

How big is the skills gap in manufacturing? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of openings in manufacturing officially surpassed the number of available workers in November 2018, at 1.06 jobs per person seeking these spots. Throw in skills requirements, and the ratio gets much worse. And to top it off, up to 40% of the skilled labor force will retire in the next five years, according to A.C. Neilson, widening the gap further.

Automation, as it turns out, doesn’t solve the problem because these skilled workers are not doing rote, repetitive tasks. According to IndustryWeek, the skills currently demanded by manufacturers include hydraulics, robotics, electrical and computer science — and what most shops need are employees who possess at least two of those skills.

During the Great Recession, manufacturers didn’t do themselves any favors when they cut apprenticeship programs to save money. Now, with boomers retiring, there’s no bench of apprentices to step up.

Manufacturers staring down the prospect of an exodus of highly skilled shop floor labor must act now to reverse that trend. Start partnering with high schools, trade schools and two-year colleges to build a labor pipeline.

But that’s not the whole picture. You also need to change the nature of some jobs to make them attractive to people who’ve grown up with technology. You’re going to be looking, for instance, for workers who know computer-based control systems, hydraulics and robotics . Those employees will be used to collaborative learning environments, where they pick up skills from teams of experts, not just one teacher at a time. These digital natives come from a generation glued to their smartphones, accustomed to visual and fast-paced learning. When they get to you, they’ll want an environment where they can be part of a team and develop new skills.

If you’re looking for workers who can keep complicated robotics systems running, plan to include them in determining maintenance schedules and talking through machine wear and tear. If you think of these workers as a hybrid between the engineers and technicians you currently have, collaboration opportunities become obvious.

Now is the time to assess your needs over the next decade and to get a proactive plan in place. Competition for bright workers with multifaceted skills will be intense.

Techniques for Addressing Manufacturing Skills Shortage