It’s been a challenging start to the 21st century for manufacturing professionals. During the first ten years of the 2000s, the Great Recession sent the industry into a downward spiral. Then, just as companies were climbing back from all-time lows, the COVID-19 pandemic delivered another deadly blow. Once the workforce emerged from nationwide shutdowns, the Great Resignation raised new red flags for job seekers and employers alike. After a turbulent two decades, is U.S. manufacturing employment finally on track to bounce back? To get to the bottom of this question, industry leaders need to investigate the good, the bad and the future.
To begin, there is real reason for optimism in the manufacturing industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, after another round of jobs being added to the hiring market, manufacturing employment has finally returned to pre-pandemic levels. Earlier this spring, U.S. industrial production and capacity utilization reached their highest levels since before the Great Recession. Experts point to a surge in demand for durable goods, furniture and building materials as a key reason for the current revitalization of the industry. In fact, employers are pointing to backlogs of orders that could keep their workforce busy well into 2023. A renewed interest in the impact the modern manufacturing industry can have on the economy is clearly a positive development.
Unfortunately, the same reports point to risks facing the industry. These risks include the increasing burden of international shipping costs, slowing global growth and the inevitable shifting of consumer dollars away from products back to services, such as travel and health care, which may have been postponed during the darkest days of the pandemic.
Yet, all of these risks pale in comparison to the single greatest threat facing the manufacturing industry – a shrinking workforce. While it’s true that jobs have been added, manufacturers are alarmed by the number of experienced workers they are losing at the same time. As with many industries, retirement looms large in manufacturing, with talent making the tough decision to bow out early. This leaves employers with numerous spots to fill and a shortage of qualified candidates ready to do the job.
Finally, after years of setbacks, it is time for manufacturing companies to set their sights firmly on the future. What this requires is a commitment to developing a new kind of workforce ready to tackle the challenges of a rapidly changing industry. As noted by Plant Services, “the industry brain drain from the retiring workforce requires mentoring in the field as well classroom training.” In fact, their research points to a predicted gap of 2.5 million unfilled technology positions by 2025.
If the manufacturing industry has any hopes of maintaining the upward momentum indicated by the recent surge in demand, it must double down on hiring, training and developing a modernized workforce. While the skills of yesterday must be handed down before the impending wave of retirements, the skills of tomorrow must be infused into a standardized system capable of producing highly capable engineers, scientists and researchers.
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