Manufacturing the Next Generation of Talent

Published Tuesday, September 10, 2019

American manufacturing is enjoying a resurgence, powered by demand and innovation. But alongside this resurgence lies a mounting challenge facing nearly every manufacturer – attracting and retaining skilled talent. However, there are actions employers can take to put the right tools and people in place to ultimately propel their companies and the manufacturing industry forward.

Understanding the Future of Manufacturing

Over the past few years, the manufacturing industry has undergone a seismic transformation.

Though traditional assembly lines remain, the industry is moving rapidly toward jobs with irreplaceable human skills, such as creativity, ingenuity and critical thinking. While this change has fueled industry innovation, it has made hiring challenges even more difficult.

Modern manufacturing has evolved and now requires a broader set of skills, including product design, engineering and distribution, technology maintenance and information security, science and even finance. Employers should work to fill these emerging roles through inhouse training programs, partnerships with local community colleges or workers who are ready to apply established skills to a new industry.

Blending Technology and Digital Skills

Across the industry, experts agree a talent shortage exists due to a widening skills gap. In 2018 alone, the United States manufacturing sector added 264,000 jobs, representing the highest numbers of new workers since 1988. But according to a study from the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, by 2028, some 2.4 million jobs within the industry will go unfilled, putting $454 billion in production at risk. Last year, there were 508,000 open jobs in U.S. manufacturing.

To offset the labor shortage and yield the highest level of productivity, the industry should embrace a work environment that blends advanced technology and digital skills with uniquely human skills. Automation has created thousands of new positions to design, engineer, manufacture, market, distribute, install and service these technologies, and employees who are able to navigate changing systems are in high demand. These types of future-proof jobs will ensure the manufacturing industry can be a source of employment for years to come. Understanding how work can change will help the industry prepare for the future.

Steps to Mitigate the Labor Shortage

In addition to introducing a more modern work environment, there are other steps manufacturers can do to retain current skilled workers and ease the process of bringing in new talent.

To retain skilled workers, manufacturers are taking a variety of steps, from improving wages and benefits to developing their current workforce through promotions and training. Others are working with local schools and community colleges with apprenticeships and other programs to encourage students to consider careers in manufacturing. Some manufacturers are also exploring new types of apprenticeships, such as adult training classes with a job offer upon completion.

Many manufacturers are also revisiting rigid hiring rules, trading job requirements for previous experience, making room for part-time workers and welcoming retired workers back to their companies. According to a Deloitte study, some manufacturers in the automotive industry, for example, are asking retiring workers whether they would consider coming back for short-term project work.

While the manufacturing industry as a whole is thriving and optimistic, the workforce crisis is more palpable than ever. To overcome these challenges, employers must provide training, technology and leadership to empower America’s manufacturing workforce to effectively compete and excel beyond that of global labor forces. While it’s difficult to imagine what the future of manufacturing may entail, talent will continue to be a key differentiator as manufacturing companies compete to be employers of choice.


Karen Winger Vineyard is market executive for Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the Pacific Northwest and Canada region and the incoming Board Chair for Oregon Business & Industry in 2020. Karen works closely with her team to deliver the bank's capabilities to clients and further develop the Oregon, Inland Northwest and broader Pacific Northwest markets. A veteran banker with 27 years of extensive expertise in middle market banking and business development throughout the region, Karen is based in Portland.

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