The labour shortage in the manufacturing industry

In this article, Joseph Zulick, a writer and manager at MRO Electric, addresses the labour shortage in manufacturing in the US and beyond…

A ‘legacy industry’, manufacturing, has become one of the least sought after career choices by the newer generations. With the US, economy strengthening and markets shifting back to within its borders, has highlighted the problem even further – a shortage of a skilled manufacturing labour force. As the ‘baby boomers’ begin to retire and exit the industry, very few people are entering it. Currently an estimated 2.7 million jobs are going to be needed in the US due to retirements and exits from the manufacturing workforce in a report done by Deliotte and the Manufacturing Institute. The industry does not appear as a lucrative, constant career option to many people. The belief being that manufacturing plants are the first to close their doors or move overseas. The are also viewed as dirty and unprogressive career fields.

Businesses also struggle with an increased time to fill empty roles, i.e. – engineers, scientist, and skilled labourers. Currently the educational push is not grounded in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and instead is focused in other disciplines. These delays in filling important roles decrease productivity and advancements for the business and industry overall. This results in companies reaching out to agencies for temporary employees to fill the roles; however, this builds an inadequate workforce that can cost the company more money and time. The shortage of workers hampers a growing company as well. Not only do retiring employees need to be replaced, but an increase in demand means more production is needed. With the quantity of roles needing filled, overtime is not a viable solution.

With the manufacturing industry in the US now at its strongest in over 20 years, having the employee workforce to support it is critical. The steel industry has grown exponentially – steel mill plants that have been shut down for years are now reheating the furnaces and opening their doors like Republic Steel in Ohio. The food industry is affected by the shifting, modern consumer as well. Like many things today, people are doing things a certain way – digital. Whether placing an order online to pick up, or for the customer that wants delivered pre-packaged food to cook at their leisure – businesses have to compete with the market. With this drive is the need for innovative equipment. Having top of the line kitchen equipment is necessary to ensure the best customer service is provided, and satisfying productivity needs. The role of automation is pivotal to all of the manufacturing industry sectors. With advancements in technology, electronics and computers, the boundaries are always being pushed – sometimes by the month. PLC and robotic technology is allowing for safer, more productive businesses while combating the current need of skilled labour. A material handling/packaging robot could take the place of two to three workers and – never need a break, miss work, etc. However, the maintenance behind it needs to be supported. So while some labour demand is met, the skilled labour side (mechanical and electrical technicians) need to be staffed to support that work force. Computers/networking is providing live-feedback of statistics like machine status, productivity numbers, and more. Web-based HMIs (human machine interface) and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems allow all of this – but once again needs the skilled labour support of automation and IT (information technology) associates. Device-Net used to be the factory way of communicating information; but Ethernet is now the king. Lastly, a big trend has been with home electrical equipment, appliances, and items like Alexa. ‘Making life easier’ is the drive behind this to the consumers. Abilities like – verbally creating a grocery list, and Alexa answering to when someone asks ‘how many ounces in a gallon’ created a storm of activity of consumers wanting this product. However, this is a product that has to be manufactured. Manufactured in industries with skilled labour personnel to assemble and package them, and maintain the equipment to constantly produce the Alexa item everyone plays music on while cooking dinner that was sent pre-packaged, delivered by the truck that has the stainless steel exhaust system from an Ohio steel mill.

So how do companies combat the problem? Modernising the business can attract the younger, tech-savvy workforce. Making contact with people while they are in college, and even touching base with them while in vocational/trade schools gets them geared towards looking at the manufacturing industry as a viable occupation that they can be successful in and thrive financially and professionally. Allowing current employees to have the opportunity to improve their skills and education can also help; improvement from within if you will. Promoting someone internally allows the professional or skilled role to be filled, and hiring an entry-level position is much less of a risk – time and financially.

I do not believe that a single solution is out there to fix this problem. It will take a mixture of things – from governments assisting and pushing things on their end to companies doing their part as well. As for myself, I have found being in the manufacturing industry very rewarding. Originally my career plan was to become a nurse, and after working in a hospital for two years did not find it fitting. Reapplying myself to college, I was drawn to electronics and before I knew it was working for a steel mill. Currently working for a tier 1 manufacturing company in the US, and operating my own freelance engineering company I can say that the need for these skilled labourers – welders, plumbers, electricians, engineers, and much more – is at an extreme high.

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