Manufacturing’s Number One Priority: Building the Workforce of the Future

The skills gap has been a hot topic in manufacturing for the better part of two decades. Many producers struggle to procure and maintain STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) talent in a field that’s growing more and more advanced by the year. And although most thought robotics would be the panacea that resolved the challenge of employment, today it’s clear that humans and machines need to work together.

As manufacturing trudges into the 2020s, there are no shortage of technological innovations … but there continues to be a shortage of qualified workers. The immediate challenge — and the one that will define the coming decade — is overcoming the skills gap.

COVID-19 hampered an already hamstrung industry

Employment consistently lags behind other benchmarks in the monthly Manufacturing ISM® Report On Business® — this year in particular. The report reached a staggering low of 27.5% in April on the heels of the largest one-month percentage-point decrease since numeric records began in January 1948.

Today, that figure has rebounded, but not quite to pre-COVID-19 levels. Despite hiring 66,000 workers in September, manufacturing is still 647,000 jobs shy of pre-COVID employment levels, which were already low to begin with. It encapsulates not only the severity of the situation post-pandemic, but the ongoing struggle of the manufacturing sector to attract and maintain a skilled workforce.

Manufacturing’s push to attract STEM workers

Manufacturers aren’t strangers to the challenge in front of them. In fact, there have been concerted efforts to raise STEM candidacy over the past decade, in the hopes that a young, eager workforce would overcome the silver tsunami of the retiring old guard. Initiatives like Manufacturing Day and Manufacturing Month (October), as well as government support for STEM programs, are bringing awareness and accessibility to career opportunities in manufacturing.

But this alone isn’t enough. Manufacturers need to provide stability. Reshoring initiatives help dispel doubts of a fickle industry willing to ship work to the lowest bidder. Continuing education opportunities help turn factory jobs into manufacturing careers. Benefits, fair wages, and employee-centric perks make manufacturing more than just a viable career path — they make it an attractive one. The jobs are there; it’s time for producers to create the workforce to fill them, rather than waiting for applicants to come to them.

Building the workforce of the future, now

As the U.S. economy emerges from the throes of COVID-19, manufacturing needs to double down on building the force of the future. Failing to establish domestic footholds today may leave companies with no choice but to offshore tomorrow. More importantly, lack of available talent could hamper a domestic manufacturing economy poised to rebound through reshoring efforts.

A glimmer of hope lies in the upcoming election. For the first time in many election cycles, manufacturing appears to be a top priority for candidates on both sides of the aisle. Incumbent President Donald Trump has been vocal about policies to create another “blue collar boom,” while challenger Joe Biden’s Made in America plan promises to infuse the manufacturing sector with $400 billion in federal dollars to promote a more sophisticated workforce.

With trade tensions running high, the skills gap ever-looming, and trepidation about global supply chains after COVID-19, there’s an unspoken urgency in manufacturing today. Producers need to begin assembling the workforce of the future, or the future of domestic manufacturing is likely to fall far short of the high hopes we have for it.

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