As baby boomer engineers retire from manufacturing, younger generations aren’t rushing in to fill their shoes. Rapidly changing technology has created greater demand for new skills among shrinking pools of talent, just as reshoring efforts promise to make domestic manufacturing even more robust.
This is why the field’s well-documented skills gap will only widen.

For 10 consecutive quarters, the biggest challenge faced by manufacturers of all sizes —and in all sectors—was their inability to hire enough skilled workers, according to the National Association of Manufacturers’ Quarterly Outlook Survey. Even with the massive shift in unemployment due to COVID-19, the skills gap remains, says Carolyn Lee, executive director, The Manufacturing Institute.

In fact, companies in the biopharma, health care, industrial supply, and food and beverage sectors are accelerating their hiring to meet the recent surge in demand for their products, Lee says. And while the pandemic’s impact will slow most manufacturing hiring, Lee believes there still won’t be enough highly skilled workers, including engineers, when the dust settles.

When manufacturers re-open their doors, remote teams may become the new normal, says Arin Ceglia, director of learning and development for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

This may also mean fewer staff in on-site factories and might even force a change to the current three shifts approach, she says. Perhaps staff will start working unusual hours, split shifts, and split their work time between the floor or office and at home.

When that happens, manufacturers must take “a hard look” at how they incorporate technology both on the plant floor and when training their workforce, say Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME (the development arm of SME), and Rob Luce, vice president of the SME Education Foundation.

This could be an opportunity to modernize the field, experts say.

Workers of any generation often struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of change, Kunz says, which is only exacerbated by the skills gap.

Embracing online training both on the shop floor and in the educational sector is an “overdue” step in keeping organizations and their workers up to date, says Kunz.

Experts cite critical thinking abilities, soft skills and hands-on experience as vital tools for prospective engineers.

They also recommend courses in data analytics and coding, which will be critical going forward, they say. According to a recent ASME study, 48 percent of engineers surveyed noted that they would most benefit from training outside of their core areas of experience.

Ceglia says that advancing technologies and automation are creating demand for skills that existing employees may not have.

“There is a shortage of certain skillsets in the manufacturing field, including critical thinking, complex-decision-making, digital skills, and programming,” she says. “In addition, there is a severe shortage of higher level competencies in early-career engineers who have graduated with powerful foundational and academic knowledge of engineering theory, but those graduates lack the ability to apply what they know on the job in a real company expecting return on investment from projects. This has emphasized the need to have competencies in industrial and application awareness and business acumen.”

And with 50-55 percent of process-manufacturing employees eligible for retirement within the next few years, this increases pressure on mid-career engineers, as well as companies who must implement succession planning, knowledge transfer, and knowledge management initiatives, she says.

It’s never been more critical for manufacturers to invest in their current workforce by training the existing talent pool or guiding employees with soon-to-be obsolete skills toward new, more desirable roles, and continuously training current employees so they can change with evolving technical demands.

Organizations who invest in this way aren’t just strengthening their workforce; they’re sending a signal to future workers about the long-term viability of their career paths, Ceglia says.

“The manufacturing industry must work to harness its subject matter expertise, convert that knowledge into scalable learning experiences, develop a multigenerational learning strategy, ensure the early-to-mid career engineers can apply their skills on the job, and expand their workforce’s technical and soft skills” to make a real impact, Ceglia says.

It can also be a good PR move. Stepping up digital training, as well as advertising the many ways that a manufacturing career can benefit society, is a smart way to appeal to young people, she says. The field has some catching up to do here—as it stands, only $487 is spent per employee on annual training in manufacturing, according to ASME’s 2019 ATD State of the Industry Report.


Attracting younger generations

While a handful of technology-centric manufacturing companies such as Tesla and SpaceX may attract young engineers, the general stigma the field faces is well-documented, says Ceglia.

Deborah Holton, managing director of industry events for ASME, says that while progress has been made to shift perceptions of manufacturing as a dark, dirty and dangerous field to a high tech one, “parents and counselors remain a larger hurdle.”

Holton cites a 2017 Deloitte survey, which found that while most respondents felt manufacturing was a valuable career, few would encourage their children to pursue it. 

This is a stubborn myth, says Luce.

“Up-and-coming Millennials have been less interested in the manufacturing industry because of the ‘4D Factor’—they perceive manufacturing to be dark, dirty, dull and dying,” he says. “This image of manufacturing is, of course, based on an old characterization of it being greasy and gritty, which is far from the case in the 21st century.”

Kunz suggests that manufacturers who seek to narrow the skills gap provide a greater emphasis on the field’s exciting technical opportunities and potential to help others.

 “The more the industry focuses on the impact the careers it offers can have and the technology-rich environment of a majority of the positions available, the more attractive it will be to up-and-coming workers at all levels,” she says.

Research shows that flexible work practices, challenging work and active mentoring are critical to attracting the next generation. Lee suggests that companies fight stigma — and attract potential new engineers—by giving a platform to their young employees.

“These young workers are great ambassadors for our careers and are relatable to students,” she says. “[They] can tell the story about how what they are doing makes an impact on a project, their company, the community and the world.”

Being straightforward about earning potential is another helpful tactic, Holton says, citing salary information from Data USA. Mechanical engineers earn an average annual salary of $88,000, and manufacturing workers overall earn an average of $63,000, while in some cases only needing a two-year degree or technical level training. These are “above average” salaries for the education needed, she says.

Ultimately, companies looking to attract new talent need to signal that manufacturing can be a lifelong career that promises upward mobility, Ceglia says. The best way to do this is to heavily engage the current workforce.

“This is a critical message that needs to be reinforced,” Ceglia says. “Start or bolster investments in existing talent by skilling, reskilling, and upskilling. This will not only help the industry retain talent but attract new talent. Q