Changes in manufacturing will attract a new generation of workers

By Erin Eagan

October is Manufacturing Month in Wisconsin, when the spotlight shines brightly on an industry that accounts for $58 billion of the state’s annual economic output.

Unfortunately, a recurring theme with Manufacturing Month over the years has been the industry’s struggle to find skilled workers in spite of much improved working conditions and increasing pay. Thousands of manufacturing jobs go unfilled every year because companies can’t find enough qualified workers to fill them.

As if that weren’t enough, the industry is about to face a massive turnover. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 25.6% of Wisconsin’s manufacturing workforce is older than 55. With more than 470,000 manufacturing workers currently in Wisconsin, as this generation retires, that’s another 120,000 jobs that will need to be filled.

With so many looming job openings, companies are making aggressive changes to fill vacant positions. This will make manufacturing much more inviting for workers in the near future.

Close the gender gap
Manufacturing has long been considered “a man’s world” because, quite simply, there are a lot more men working in it than women. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, women make up about 47 percent of the total labor force, but only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Very few, if any, other industries are as gender-skewed.

During a time when the manufacturing industry is in need of so many skilled workers and managers, more focus should be put on recruiting qualified women — and retaining them once they’re there. Despite misperceptions, manufacturing has a lot to offer women. It’s challenging work but there’s opportunity for advancement; and it pays well (the average pay for a manufacturing worker in Wisconsin is $55,500 per year).

An area where the industry is somewhat lagging when it comes to attracting more women, however, is flexibility — especially where work-life balance is concerned. A flexible work environment is often ranked high among important workplace amenities for women. Family commitments are a huge priority, and women want to be able to manage work and family, without it impairing their careers. Other industries offer it. You can expect more manufacturing firms to jump on board.

Begin recruiting efforts at a younger age
There is a whole new generation of manufacturing workers currently in our high schools and middle schools. Recruitment into the manufacturing industry should begin during this time to get them at least thinking about a career in manufacturing.

An effective three-pronged approach to get this done starts with educating students, parents and educators through job fairs, youth apprenticeships, facility tours, guest speakers and other manufacturing-themed events being held throughout the state.

The earlier the industry starts recruiting today’s youth, the more successful it will be in influencing their career paths.

Repair an outdated image
The manufacturing industry of today is cutting-edge, despite it still being perceived as an old, dying industry. Factories from just 20 years ago are almost unrecognizable these days as new equipment, including CNC machining and robotics, have since moved in.

It’s up to the manufacturing industry itself to work on repairing its image by engaging with the community, sharing these new innovations and educating potential workers on what skills they may need to succeed in a manufacturing career. Many manufacturing plants are doing this with community open houses. 

It should be noted that there is progress where our state is concerned. Enrollment in manufacturing programs at WTCS institutions is up 35.6 percent from 2011 to 2015. That’s very promising. This upward trend will likely continue as the perception of the industry changes and we inspire the next generation to pursue manufacturing careers.