The U.S. manufacturing industry’s skilled labor shortage has been widely reported in the past decade. Millions of jobs became vacant due to the retirement of baby boomers and economic expansion. Until recently, experts predicted that half of these open positions would remain unfilled due to the fact that fewer than 10 percent of high school and college graduates annually enter the manufacturing field.

COVID-19 may change this, says Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, the workforce and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of manufacturing in this country,” Lee says. “The perception of the manufacturing sector has been one of the biggest challenges in recruiting for manufacturing jobs [but] the crisis provides an opportunity to recruit new employees.”

In other words, more manufacturing jobs may soon be filled by the masses of newly unemployed workers.

The incentives have never been clearer: Experts say that U.S. manufacturing workers overall earn $63,000 a year on average, a number that factors in the salaries of all manufacturing-related positions. Considering the fact that some positions require only a two-year degree or technical level training, this can certainly be appealing.

While the skills gap is partly due to a misperception of the manufacturing industry and of the skills needed to enter the field, the reality is that manufacturing is a fundamental part of the U.S. economy. And although disruptions caused by the pandemic have interrupted businesses’ supply chains and lessened some consumer demand, manufacturers are still in need of workers.


Training for soft skills

According to Lee, the industry struggles to find enough workers with “soft” skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Rob Luce, vice president of the SME Education Foundation, also voices this need— especially among job seekers with advanced educations, such as engineers.

“What [applicants] need to bring to the table that is difficult to train for are soft skills: the ability to write concisely, think critically, [and] solve problems,” Luce says. “Those types of skills that are developed over their lifetime and can’t really be taught efficiently in a classroom setting.”

Lee also cites the top five positions for which manufacturers are currently hiring. They fall into the following categories:

  • Customer and client support, or basic customer service
  • Information technology
  • General sales
  • Supply chain and logistics
  • Administrative

The top 10 in-demand positions that require a bachelor’s degree fall in these categories:

  • Information technology
  • General sales
  • Project management
  • Customer and client support, or basic customer service
  • Business process and analysis

Lee says that most of these positions reflect stable national and global growth.

In order to fill these jobs, Lee says, educators and manufacturers must come together to discuss the skills that are required for these roles and adapt their curricula and training as needed.

But how does one adapt training in a pandemic?


Remote training

“COVID-19 has created challenges in training new and existing staff due to the needs of hands-on training in close proximity,” Lee acknowledges.

To address this, employers are attempting virtual learning and are embracing new technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality environments, she says.

While Lee says that most training in the manufacturing space is best when it is hands-on, it will be critical for training providers to find creative ways to continue to give people the same level of education, even during this crisis.

“Through some of our programs, including our Heroes MAKE America program, we have seen education providers create hybrid programs that allow students to do most of their training virtually and then allowing students to come to their schools to practice their hands-on training,” Lee adds. “We have also seen the growth and expansion of on-the-job training through earn-and-learn programs.”

With the current crisis, managing face-to-face interactions and touch points in a factory setting poses safety concerns. Artificial intelligence and the Industrial Internet of Things ensures that businesses can monitor activities and movements to create and manage a safer and more comfortable factory environment, experts say.

Remote tools and advanced cloud-based analytics tools allow technical staff to monitor and diagnose equipment—and one another—remotely. Manufacturers can tap into industry experts, who might otherwise be hard to physically secure, for remote educational opportunities, and they can acquire immersive remote assistance from vendors or another site using technologies like augmented reality.

Luce hopes that remote training will outlive the pandemic.

“When manufacturers open their doors again, there needs to be a hard look at using technology not only in the manufacturing processes and systems but also in learning and developing of its people,” he says. “Embracing online training and online tools to educate their workforce as part of a blended approach is overdue. Both the industry and individual manufacturers will need to utilize their pre-disposed innovative thinking to also embrace different ways to learn. We’ve got to put technology to work in educating our workforce.”

Whether remote or in-person, experts say that hands-on training that combines practical experience with academic knowledge is key to preparing potential hires for success. Those seeking manufacturing work should seek out internships, if they can, with manufacturers, where they can get their hands—or computers—dirty.


Upskilling for a digital environment

Many businesses have already begun modernizing the systems that run their business, improving operations, and investing in new technologies.

Manufacturing has as a result gotten more complex and also more digital as companies adopt the technologies that they need to stay current. The explosion of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, is a sign of this.

“The opportunity for manufacturing to leverage IIoT and artificial intelligence is only now scratching the surface,” says Dean Phillips, production enhancement engineer for LINK Systems.

“Taking sensor feedback and processing it in the cloud provides new interfacing every day. The IIoT interface is providing plugins and programs that can utilize the same information to maximize material requirements planning programs.”

But in order for manufacturers to transition to an IIoT environment, they need staff who understand how to work with the technology. This requires training.

“The key to all IIoT tools is training and preparation,” Phillips says. “The foundation we build of knowledge will be the floors of our manufacturing success, tomorrow, or sooner. Upskilling and reskilling needs to take place now so companies can be in the best position moving forward.”

Businesses who have growing needs for digitally skilled workers can seek out competent staff while retaining current employees—who may not have this evolving skillset. In doing so, that training should be multifaceted.

Employers must train their existing workforce; retrain employees whose current skills are becoming obsolete with more desirable skills; and also continue to train the employees whose current roles are evolving. Q