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It’s Time to Reinvigorate the Manufacturing Workforce

It’s Time to Reinvigorate the Manufacturing Workforce

If you’ve been following the headlines about the manufacturing workforce over the past year, you know we’re at the intersection of two concurrent crises:

  1. The Great Resignation has led to more manufacturing workers quitting their jobs than workers in any other industry.
  2. The need for skilled labor is dramatically increasing as companies strive to meet supply demands.

While the manufacturing industry has struggled with labor shortages for years, the pandemic expedited a mass exodus of workers. When lockdowns were in effect, factory production came to a screeching halt, and in those early days of the pandemic, about 1.4 million manufacturing jobs were lost. Even after work resumed, social distancing requirements interfered with workers’ productivity, and despite most manufacturing jobs returning only 63% of the 1.4 million openings had been filled by the end of 2020.

Today, the manufacturing industry continues to grapple with high unemployment rates and widespread job insecurity.

Still, demand for skilled workers increases at accelerated rates. By some estimates, there will be as many as 2.1 million manufacturing positions to fill by 2030. What happens if we don’t fill those positions? The manufacturing industry could stand to lose an estimated $1 trillion in 2030 alone.

Manufacturing leaders must attract a new generation of machinists while supporting and retaining our current workforce—and we must act quickly.

How to Attract a New Generation of Machinists

Growing up in Vermont, I didn’t know I could become a machinist. I knew plenty of farmers, electricians, and mechanics, but I had no idea manufacturing careers even existed.

I was encouraged to graduate high school, go to college, and get a “good job.”

I tried that path, but I didn’t enjoy college and hated paying for it even more. I left school and moved to California, where I started working as an auto mechanic, joined the Marines, and was honorably discharged from the Marines—all before my 22nd birthday. That’s when a family friend suggested I look into machining, and my career in manufacturing began.

Today, my company specializes in models, prototypes, and production manufacturing from our two locations in California and Vermont. Had I remained on the university path, who knows where I’d be?

As leaders in our industry, it’s up to us to introduce the possibility of a manufacturing career to kids like me—kids who might not want to go to college but who crave work that’s fascinating, creative, and challenging.

Everyone talks about the skills gap, but we also need to address the manufacturing industry’s visibility problem. Machining isn’t exactly a fixture in mainstream entertainment—save the occasional outstanding documentary—and older generations still look at manufacturing jobs through a lens of bitterness and resentment over the outsourcing and factory closures of the last few decades. We must increase awareness and show people that we have excellent opportunities available.

Here are three ways we can accomplish these critical tasks:

  1. Get in front of classes at elementary, middle, and high schools and host regular open houses to welcome community members into the shop to see modern machining firsthand.
  2. Let people know that manufacturing is a viable industry offering a solid paycheck and many opportunities for fulfilling work and career growth.
  3. Dismantle stereotypes and misconceptions that manufacturing jobs are dirty and dangerous or boring and basic. We need to be inclusive in our recruiting and show how people from all backgrounds can find a home on our factory floors.

The time to educate the future generations is now. We must ramp up our workforce quickly, so I hope you’ll commit to taking these actions with me:

  • Open your facilities to the public and market your events well.
  • Get involved in local organizations to spread the word about manufacturing workforce opportunities.
  • Seek out opportunities to connect—ask to speak at schools in your area and participate in community events.
  • Build a great workplace where your employees feel valued and respected, so they can help improve awareness alongside you.

How to Retain, Support, and Champion the Current Workforce

Attracting new talent is only one part of the solution. To meet today’s demand for manufacturing and scale to meet future needs, we must leverage our current workforce as well.

Retaining and supporting our employees won’t be an easy feat—nor an inexpensive one. The two strategies are intertwined:

Investing in education

Educating a workforce is expensive—purchasing machines and finding experts to train employees costs time and money—but the ROI will be exponential. We can preserve and champion our current workforce by giving them advanced training to increase their skill set and provide more interesting and fulfilling work. While each manufacturer has their own style of training employees, we should all be future-forward and seek opportunities to bring workers up to speed on innovative technologies. We need to focus on advancement and not settle for the status quo—which brings us to the next strategy.

Embracing technology

Often a controversial topic, technology makes everyone’s lives better. When we’re slow to adopt new technologies, we hinder our competitiveness. We must start using technology to drive the business forward instead of merely leveraging it to replace our current modes of working. Critics argue that technology reduces the number of workers needed on the floor, but we’re already operating at a deficit. Technology can assume the jobs we can’t fill, enabling us to train and promote our employees to more advanced positions.

Today’s manufacturers are at a pivotal point—we have to act now to ensure the security of the manufacturing industry in this country. Manufacturing leaders and shop owners need to invest in the education of our employees, proactively adopt technologies that can advance our services, and let the public know we’re here and we’re hiring—before it’s too late.

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Brian Kippen is the President and CEO of KAD Models & Prototypes. KAD specializes in CNC machining, silicone molding, and urethane casting from their two locations in California and Vermont.