The manufacturing industry is experiencing a labor shortage that is projected to continue into the future. By 2030, there will be a gap of 2.1 million unfilled skilled jobs, representing an opportunity cost of 1 trillion dollars per year. In a post-pandemic world where the unemployment rate is decreasing across virtually all sectors, the continued difficulty in filling vacancies paints a bleak picture for manufacturers: America is lacking the critical human resource that drives innovation, and not enough unskilled workers are willing to learn these critical skills.

A Widening Skill Gap that Starts at Schools

In a survey by Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), The Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International, a staggering 52% of teens interviewed showed no little interest in a manufacturing career. Another 21% are ambivalent about manufacturing as a career choice. When asked about the reasons for their choice, 61% of the teens identified their need for a professional career as their main barrier to choosing a manufacturing career, followed by pay (17%) and career growth (15%). To these teens, a manufacturing career offers neither a good career prospect nor a satisfying working condition.

What these numbers reveal is not simply a general disinterest in manufacturing careers among teens but also a continued misperception of the manufacturing industry as a whole. While manufacturing has transformed significantly in the last decade with the introduction of digital tools such as AI, automation and IIoT, the industry still suffers from the stigma of being a labor-intensive, unskilled field. A survey by Deloitte in 2015 reported that most Americans think that the U.S. manufacturing sector is getting weaker and that many American citizens are steering their children away from careers in manufacturing in favor of other industries they view as more stable.

With the generational turnover slowly but surely happening, the awareness divide also widens. Baby boomers are well aware of the importance of manufacturing and how it became a competitive advantage of the U.S., but Millennials and Gen Z might not share that awareness. Compared to Babyboomers, the main workforce in manufacturing for a long time, younger workers care more about finding meaning and values in their daily work than financial stability and job security. The core of this disinterest is, in fact, a belief that manufacturing is not rewarding and fulfilling.

Rekindling the Interest in Manufacturing Among Younger Generation

The skill gap is widening as education continues to lag behind technological advances in manufacturing. While manufacturing has advanced into the age of digital transformation, manufacturing education is still stuck in the Industrial age. Things are taught mostly by textbooks, which simply cannot keep up with the changes that are happening by the hour on the shop floor.

Rekindling the interest in a manufacturing career and solving the labor shortage in manufacturing once and for all requires manufacturing education to offer both a better, more updated image of the manufacturing sector and more exposure to the industry as a whole.

On image: breaking the stigma around manufacturing as an unskilled career with low prospects is the key to turning the public perception of the field. As automation continues to make advances in manufacturing, workers will become more valuable, not less. Manufacturers now need workers who can work in harmony with the machines and utilize it to improve efficiency and productivity. This adoption of technology opens up new opportunities for upskilling among manufacturing workers.

In Deloitte's 2018 study of upskilling in manufacturing, 50% of manufacturers said they have adopted automation and the most critical skill for their workforce would be critical thinking. Emsi Burning Glass data shows that demand for managers with Emerging Technology skills in the manufacturing industry has increased 126% on average, much faster than the 72% average increase for all manufacturing jobs during this period. 75% of manufacturers in the same survey identified upskilling and reskilling as the main driver of success in the next decade. Manufacturers need workers with advanced skills, and they are willing to invest in developing those skills for younger workers.

On exposure: gaining exposure to the manufacturing industry as a whole means getting out of the classroom and learning from experience rather than textbooks. Manufacturing jobs are no longer dull and mindless - frontline workers are now equipped with technologies that allow them to participate in the problem-solving and decision-making process, making significant impact on the production line. To complete the job well now requires more than diligence. Workers are utilizing their creativity and innovative thinking daily to solve challenging problems and drive continuous improvements on the shopfloor.

Collaboration between education institutions and manufacturers offers a good opportunity for students to experience manufacturing firsthand and form their own opinion of the industry based on real-world observations. According to the Manufacturing Institutes, 84 percent of students who attended MFG Day events hosted by manufacturing organizations emerged “more convinced that manufacturing provides careers that are interesting and rewarding.” 71 percent of students said that they “were more likely to tell friends, family, parents, or colleagues about manufacturing after attending an event.” 64 percent of students said that they “were more motivated to pursue a career in manufacturing.” Real-life exposure does more than convincing. It inspires the next generation of creators.

As manufacturing continues to advance through digital transformation, it’s important to remember that workers remain the most important asset, and to develop sustainably means educating and inspiring the next generation of workers to design, build and innovate. Manufacturing is undergoing critical change to be ready for a younger generation of workers who are digital natives and full of creativity. Now it’s time to let them know one important thing: we’re ready to help them build a rewarding career.