“Workforce, workforce, workforce”: US manufacturing faces its greatest challenge

MFG Day event speaks to attracting more young workers to manufacturing careers.

“If you haven’t been on the floor of an advanced manufacturing facility, you gotta go.”

That was North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s take on one of manufacturing’s biggest challenges: busting the “dirty, dark, and dangerous” myth about jobs in the sector. Cooper spoke at a National Association of Manufacturers event hosted on the SAS campus in Cary, NC October 5th and was joined by NAM president Jay Timmons along with panelists from a variety of firms, including ABB.

Attracting more people to manufacturing was already challenging prior to the pandemic, but the ensuing labor shortage has made it a critical issue.

“When I talk to CEOs,” said Cooper, “their top three issues are workforce, workforce, and workforce.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at MFG Day event
Photo by David Bohrer / National Assoc. of Manufacturers

That’s why NAM and its workforce development arm, the Manufacturing Institute, put on events like this—to generate awareness about what modern manufacturing looks like and, most of all, about the employment opportunities that are available.

“My father worked in manufacturing,” says ABB’s Bria Williams, who participated on a panel of early-career workers. “He moved from production into jobs in HR and supply chain over the course of his career. The possibilities are endless.”

Despite the breadth of opportunities they offer, manufacturers face a daunting reality.

“There is a workforce crisis,” NAM’s Timmons said, “and it’s being driven by a long-term skills gap.”

Timmons went on to explain that there are currently two jobs for every job seeker in the US and 800,000 open positions in manufacturing alone. By the end of the decade, that number will be 4 million and 2.1 million of those jobs will go unfilled unless something changes. (This according to a NAM-sponsored study by Deloitte).

Part of the problem is a communications challenge—more outreach is needed, and not just for people entering the workforce. SAS vice president of IoT, Jason Mann, put it plainly, saying “If you wait until graduation, it’s too late.”

Engaging with students early—in middle school, say—is the answer, according to Mann, and SAS has done so with events like hackathons. ABB, too, has gotten creative in pitching STEM careers to young people. From establishing a Girl Scout patch for STEM activities to funding “Kid Grid” (an interactive exhibit at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, NC), the company has stretched well beyond funding scholarships and research fellowships at the university level.

Still, the manufacturing sector is up against decades of conventional wisdom that tells parents and students alike that there is nothing cool about working in a factory. But to listen to the people actually working at manufacturing firms, a very different picture emerges. In particular, there is a sense of contributing to something larger.

MFG Day “Creators’ Panel” (L to R) Carolyn Lee, President and Executive Director, Manufacturing Institute (moderator); Nate Cox, Senior Systems Engineer, SAS; Hardi Desai, Sr Associate Machine Learning Developer, SAS; Bria Williams, HR Business Partner, ABB; and Maggie Wilson, Industrial Investigation Project Manager, Mack Trucks & Volvo Trucks North America

“I see our trucks on the road every day, carrying food to the grocery store” said Maggie Wilson, a Project Manager at Mack Trucks. She’s on her second role at Mack and cites the sense of purpose as a major plus in working at a firm that makes things that are vital to the economy and modern life in general.

“You can see things moving,” said Hardi Desai, another early-career panelist who works in machine learning at SAS. “You can see an impact.”

Desai was working for a manufacturing client and saw one of their products in her house and felt an immediate connection. “Manufacturing is truly hands on,” she said.

The connection and sense of purpose the panelists described may be the key to manufacturing’s labor conundrum. Survey after survey of millennials and Gen Z workers shows that the younger generations want their work to be more than a paycheck. They want to have a tangible, positive influence on the world—and they expect their employers to be on board.

Still, there are hurdles, some already well known.

“Women make up 28% of manufacturing workforce,” noted panel moderator Carolyn Lee, Executive Director at the Manufacturing Institute. “If we had 10% more, we’d close the skills gap by half.”

She cited another compelling statistic: that one in four Americans has had some entanglement with the criminal justice system which in many cases keeps them from even applying for jobs. This represents a massive labor pool that has gone largely untapped.

Manufacturers face an almost existential crisis with regard to attracting and retaining talent. More needs to be done, and soon, if the US expects to remain competitive in the business of making things.

Partnering with educational institutions and groups like NAM and the Manufacturing Institute is a good start. Forward-thinking firms are already reaching out, dispelling myths and promoting the good-paying, impactful jobs that await a new generation of workers.

The good news, according to multiple panelists on the SAS stage, is that when people actually visit modern manufacturing plants, they get it. They see the bright, clean working environment, the technology, the variety of roles—and, maybe, they feel something like a sense of purpose at work.

Categories and Tags
About the author

Bob Fesmire

Bob Fesmire is a Content Manager at ABB, based in Cary, North Carolina. He has written more than 150 articles and white papers on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, industrial automation and big data. In addition to his work at ABB, Bob is also the co-author of Energy Explained, a non-technical introduction to all aspects of the energy industry.
Comment on this article