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Focus: Manufacturing

Feature Article from Our Manufacturing Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Nov. 6, 2013 -

Supply Chain News: Labor Shortage in Manufacturing Really is Getting Worse


Lack of Skilled Workers Likely will Combine with Aging Demographics to Cause Real Labor Challenges; Young Workers Disdain Manufacturing Jobs


SCDigest Editorial Staff

The topic of labor in manufacturing has for a number of years been something of a conundrum.

That's because despite stories of a large number of openings for skilled laborers in US factories, unemployment rates remain pretty high, and there are numerous stories about newer, highly automated factories today needing just a fraction of the workers required to keep the output humming versus years past.

SCDigest Says:

The Thomas.Net study found that 59% of small and medium-size manufacturers are planning to hire skilled trade workers - that is, if they can find them.
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For example, SCDigest published a story not long ago about signs of a rebirth of sorts for the US textile and apparel industry in terms of output - but not employment. That included the story of Parkdale Mills, which recently reopened a factory near Gaffney, SC that can produce 2.5 million pounds of yarn a week with about 140 workers. In 1980, that production level would have required more than 2,000 people, the company said.

But recent data does suggest that there is a growing shortage of truly skills workers - and that any aging worker demographic combined with a lack of interest from younger generations in working in manufacturing that could cause companies real labor issues.

As a recent article in Fortune magazine noted, "Companies that make tangible products are struggling to find candidates for about 237,000 job openings. To put that figure in perspective, it's 89,000 more than the entire U.S. economy created in September."

That is partly a lack of available welders, machinists, and other skilled laborers, leading some companies to begin apprentice type programs as are commonly found in Europe to create their own labor stream. This approach has been largely but not entirely led by German companies emulating programs in their domestic markets here in the US. (See German Firms Take US Skill Shortage into Own Hands, Launch Manufacturing Training Programs Here.)

"We've learned it is better to build our own workforce instead of just relying on the market," Hans-Herbert Jagla, head of human resources for Volkswagen at its new Chattanooga plant, said in July of 2012.

Training programs can certainly help some - but may not do much to address the powerful demographic changes going on.

Nearly 80% of the current manufacturing workforce is between the ages of 45 and 65, says a new study from in its annual Industry Market Barometer. One-third are between 55 and 64 years old and obviously not far away from retirement.

(Manufacturing Article Continued Below)



Yet more than 75% of the manufacturers in the study said that fewer than 25% of their employees are under age 30, and most don't see that changing anytime soon.

Another study of manufacturers in the Pittsburg area, found that bbout 25 percent of manufacturing workersare at least 55 years old, whereas only 5 percent are younger than 25. That was the smallest proportion of young workers among all sectors in the regional economy.

The Thomas.Net study says this is a "ticking biological clock" for the manufacturing sector that could derail future growth.

In fact, many younger people are dropping out of the workforce altogether, as the percent of US adults working has been dropping steadily.

But worse, the under 30 crowd simply does not see manufacturing work as an attractive option. That may be due to some misconceptions about new age manufacturing jobs, says Paul Gerbino, head of ThomasNet News.

Many young workers don't even think about manufacturing as a career "because they don't realize that factory jobs are not what they were in the old days," says Gerbino. "Many of these jobs involve sophisticated technology" he told Fortune, and with that comes improved pay. Salaries can start at $50,000 or more, and climb to well over $100,000 a year for skilled, experienced engineers and technicians.

The Thomas.Net study found that 59% of small and medium-size manufacturers are planning to hire skilled trade workers - that is, if they can find them.

Some companies, such as German automaker BMW, are reacting to the problem by making changes so reduce the physical beating older workers take so that productivity diminishes less with age, and workers stay on the job longer before retiring.


In 2007, BMW Calculated what Its Factory Worker Age Spread Would be in 10 Years


The company found that very small investments in this area can pay big dividends on the shop floor, something a lot more manufacturers need to consider.


Is there a real factory worker shortage - at least in the skilled areas? Are the aging demographics in manufacturing a real issue? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.

Recent Feedback

The problem is the message is not getting through. Companies have experienced people, but very few offer to teach or offer training - that is my 40 years of experience.  Everyone has pushed the training on to someone else.  Few techical schools teach machine or tool making.  I have lived in Utah, Cincinnati, Indianaplois (and in Baghdad).  Basic welding is not going to cut it in the aerospace and modern auto industry with all the alloys out there without someone providing the training.  While machine tool making in the Cincinnati area 22 years, I was never aware of a school specializing for that. Cincinnati Technical Collage did offer some training in aircraft maintenance, which is a far cry from a machine shop (its now Cincinnati Community College, and has moved away from the technical aspects it had.  The Scarlet Oaks did offer plumbing and carpentry, but still no skills in the machine shop.  Hey Cincinnati was a skilled workforce city until the 80s, when as most everywhere else in the northern states, those jobs disappeared in large part.

I have worked with the employment system of a church and never heard of apprenticeships, except for a few union ones which was open "if you knew someone."

Some jobs could employ the deaf or hard of hearing, but the stigma that they "can't learn or it is too dangerous" prevails although few will confess that.  I have friend who in 1978 was hired as a janitor, but, although he was a finish carpenter (taught by his father) it took Thiokol (the Space shuttle people) several years before they were forced to give him a chance- he was their most efficient and productive worker, since he did not stop to chatter all day long. 

Clifton Stout
Procurement Analyst
Nov, 19 2013

The Reshoring Initiative has implemented one solution and proposes two more for this important problem.  The image issues we address and our solutions follow:

1. Academic degrees are the only way to get ahead: Based on our input, the Bureau of Labor Statistics changed this website , softening the heading from “Education Pays” and adding notes re apprenticeship programs and other training.2.    Vocational or trades training lacks prestige: Do as the Germans and Swiss: Refer to the tool and die profession or the foundry profession.3. Manufacturing is all going offshore, so why train for a career with no future: Report to the Reshoring Initiative local cases of reshoring.  Get the local newspaper, TV and radio stations to report on the local reshoring cases of the month.  Show the community that manufacturing is returning.

The Reshoring Initiative is prepared to advise communities on implementing items #2 and 3.

Harry C. Moser
Founder and President
Reshoring Initiative
Dec, 02 2013