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Pandemic Makes Plain Need for Manufacturing Workforce

Black female engineer working on industrial machine in a laboratory
Credit: iStock/skynesher

In the Sept. 18, 2020, session of the “National Conversation with Manufacturers,” our three West Coast manufacturing leaders on the panel kept coming back to their critical need for skilled workers.

The conversation was one in a series of 11 virtual listening sessions hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP). The purpose of the listening sessions was learning how small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country have been handling the near-term jolt from the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing for success in the long-term.

Nationally, much attention has been paid to a reported dearth of workers with the skills to operate in an increasingly technologically advanced production environment, as well as a need for skilled younger workers to replace experienced workers nearing retirement age across multiple trades and industries. The manufacturing executives participating in the conversation echoed this need. Singled out as particularly difficult to find were workers with the combined electrical and mechanical aptitude to fill the role of maintenance technician. “It's very difficult to find people that have that experience and broad knowledge of hydraulics, building facilities, mechanics, that kind of stuff,” one manufacturing executive said. “So, yeah, if you do find a good one, you treat them very well.”

Yet, the participants indicated that finding skilled workers is only part of the manufacturing workforce challenge. Attracting entry-level applicants willing to do the work, put in the hours and stick with the schedule that the manufacturing environment requires remains an obstacle, they said. This challenge continues despite high levels of unemployment due to the pandemic and the subsequent economic slowdown.

Two of the manufacturers have seen demand for their products increase during the pandemic. They have added evening and weekend shifts to keep up with demand but have found staffing non-standard work hours particularly difficult. They see the challenge as partly temporary, as participants stated that the federal subsidy for unemployment benefits in response to the pandemic-induced economic downturn provides little incentive to take entry-level jobs paying modest wages. These manufacturing executives also see the challenge as  partly generational in that parents, schools and society have not always encouraged young people to pursue manufacturing as a career path.

These manufacturing executives called on the MEP National NetworkTM to champion the development of the current and future manufacturing workforce. Specific recommendations included:

  1. Helping manufacturers access funding for incumbent training to upgrade the skills of existing workers. This could be particularly useful to manufacturers in industries hard-hit by the current downturn; many are using the slowdown in business to cross-train and expand the skill sets of workers.
  2. Collaborating with community colleges and other organizations on easily accessible ways to gain foundational manufacturing competencies. These may be short-term immersive programs, such as a manufacturing boot camp or stackable credentials that allow workers, at their pace and interest level, to move from manufacturing fundamentals to more advanced production and leadership skills.
  3. Advocating postsecondary, as well as secondary and primary, schools as partners in creating an advanced manufacturing talent pipeline. Supply disruptions seen in the wake of the pandemic are driving an interest in reshoring, particularly high-skill and high-value, manufacturing activities to the U.S. But to be successful, the country has to be ready for the transition by having the necessary pool of talent.
  4. Reimagining the advanced manufacturing workforce. Today’s advanced manufacturing companies aren’t the dirty workplaces of a generation ago. Nor are they settings where robots negate the need for well-skilled workers. “Automation makes the job more doable,” said one participant. “It makes it more enjoyable, and it potentially makes the job actually more attractive to someone who is looking for work.”

With assistance from the Network, manufacturers see promise and possibilities for what has been and continues to be a challenge — workforce.

 

The MEP National Network is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. We’re here to continue our mission to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers, and our mission is now more important than ever. Connect with your local MEP Center to learn how you can succeed in a changing world.

About the author

Mark Schmit

Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology's Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP), since 1988, has been committed to strengthening U.S. manufacturing...

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