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15 Experts Weigh in on Manufacturing’s Shifting Workforce Demographics

The generation gap in manufacturing is a significant ongoing issue for industrial operations

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Industrial workers

Manufacturing skills gap. Talent shortage. Shifting workforce demographics. What are the trends?

Call it what you will, but the fact remains that the U.S. manufacturing industry faces a pressing issue in the coming years if current worker retirement rates continue to accelerate and projections for industry expansion prove accurate. Research from the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte indicates there could be as many as 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025, up from initial estimates of 600,000. As noted in a Huffington Post article on the research findings, retirement and rapid industry growth are the two driving factors contributing to the skills shortage.

To get a better sense of how the industry is addressing the challenges (and potential opportunities) associated with the increasing skills gap, we recently conferred with industry partners, leaders, and subject matter experts.

Here are these leaders’ opinions on shifting workforce demographics in manufacturing, based on discussions and conversations with leading organizations:

Manufacturing Skills Gap Challenges

Baby Boomers vs. Millennials

MHEDA Logo

1) Mark Milovich, President, MHEDA

“You’ve got a lot of the dealers and distributors that are from the Baby Boomer generation or maybe even Generation X. And then you’ve got these Millennials coming into positions of responsibility now and they have a different mindset than maybe what the ownership or senior management has as far as what motivates them and what’s important to them.

For the Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers, the mentality is that your life revolves around your work. The opposite is true for Millennials, who think work should revolve around your life. The younger generation is also more in tune with social things and being connected electronically. So there’s kind of a tug of war going on.”

2) Bob Simmons, Vice President, Pro-Line
Pro-LineLogo

I hear a lot of people talking about Baby Boomers retiring. But what I’m seeing in the workforce is that the trend is actually going the other way. People are a little bit more concerned about retiring, whether it’s because of financial security or Social Security, etc.

So they (older skilled workers) are actually staying in the workforce longer. Because of that, they need more ergonomic solutions in order to help them do the manufacturing and/or packaging distribution – that way, the work can accommodate the aging bodies.”

ProLine is a leading manufacturer of industrial workstations, ergonomic work benches and more.

Talent Development

3) Craig Giffi, Vice Chairman, Deloitte
Delloitte Logo

“It is not a significant surprise Americans are not selecting the manufacturing industry as their top career choice, given they believe manufacturing jobs are the first to move to other countries and our policy makers are not providing the leadership to help create an advantage for U.S. manufacturers relative to other countries.

Overall, executives and the general public agree, manufacturing is vital to America. Now is the time to address the talent issue and policy changes necessary to ensure future U.S. competitiveness — before it’s too late.”

4) Jennifer McNelly, President, Manufacturing Institute

Manufacturing Institute Logo

“Just as every company engineers its product lines, its supply chain and its production process, you can engineer a talent pipeline.

Manufacturers can no longer afford to wait for an educated and trained next generation of manufacturing talent. They will need to do more to develop their talent pool, and the same old approaches no longer apply.”

5) Jerry Jasinowski, Former President, National Association of Manufacturers

“Manufacturing still has an outdated, negative image among many young people. Also, the rapid advance of technology is raising the bar for working in modern manufacturing, and the public schools generally are doing a dismal job of teaching the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

Some experts also fault industry for not providing sufficient training to applicants interested in manufacturing careers through on-the-job instruction and apprenticeship programs.”

Manufacturing Technology Skill Sets

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6) Mike Jones, ID Sales Manager, Cognex

“For our organization, there’s a lot of effort that’s put into system setup, both from a software and hardware perspective, so we need to have the right team in place to make the process as easy on the customer as possible.

Will that be a challenge moving forward [with skilled workers increasingly retiring]? I expect that it will.”

Cognex manufactures industry-leading scanners, vision systems and barcode readers.

Manufacturing Maintenance Skills

7) Steve Dillamon, Vice President of Sales, Ryson

Ryson Spiral Conveyors Logo

“We see a lot of issues with respect to the manufacturing skills gap. The young people with maintenance skills, well – we don’t see a lot of them. Most seem to be focused on technology and social media and that sort of thing.

But it goes deeper than that. Young people of today don’t want to go to vocational skills – they don’t graduate from high school and say ‘I’m a maintenance mechanic.’ It’s a real issue. The upside of the individuals who do take those jobs is they’re more in demand, so obviously their pay is higher.”

Ryson manufactures high-quality spiral conveyors.

Commission Sales

8) Chuck Cobb, National Accounts Manager, PFlow
Pflow Logo

“Historically, within the distributor cycle, commission sales tends to be the model. Millennials are very reluctant about that. They tend to be significantly more risk averse than the folks currently in the industry, so that represents a hurdle for younger folks entering in because there is certainly a risk of not achieving the front end.”

Pflow is the leading manufacturer of vertical conveyors and mezzanine lifts.

Manufacturing Skills Gap Opportunities

Automation

9) Bob Clark, Vice President of Sales, Bishamon
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“With the younger generation, the Millennials, we’re finding as a manufacturer, they don’t want to dirty their hands. They don’t want to be welders and things like that so it’s getting harder and harder to find young, qualified people that want to work in these types of positions.

So we’re doing our best to remain competitive and keep up brokered sales and, as a result, we’ve had to automate some warehouse work. If we can automate it, we’re trying to automate it.”

SI Systems Logo

10) Ed Romaine, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, SI Systems

“For manufacturing, there’s a significant percentage of Baby Boomers looking to retire in the coming years. So you’ve got a generation that’s well trained and educated to do work that they enjoy doing leaving the workforce. On the flip side, you’ve got a newer generation of kids coming up into the workforce and hard labor is not something that most enjoy or want to do.

So how do you replace the older generation of skilled workers? You replace them with automation. Automation is going to fill the voids, fill the gaps by making processes more efficient.”

SI Systems manufactures leading A-frame and automated picking technologies.

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11) Reid Fischer, Sales Manager, KAB Tech

“Robotics will play a critical role in the space in the years to come. Many facilities will have fewer assembly workers and more programming/maintenance personnel to manage the automated systems.”

12) Aaron Lamb, General Manager, Lift’n Buddy
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“I foresee somewhat of a chasm with respect to the aging workforce and distinct skills sets that are going to be increasingly difficult to fill with Millennial workers, who tend to be more interested in the technology side of things.

Many companies turn to automation in these instances so they don’t have to bear the brunt of the overhead of human resources. That’s really what we’re seeing: If companies don’t have the populace to get the job done, they’re looking for further technology and innovation in automation.”

Lift’nBuddy manufactures powered stacker/lifts for ergonomic handling applications.

13) Sean Mulikin, Regional Accounts Manager, Aleco

“In the years to come, there will undoubtedly be a shortage of workers who have the skill sets to carry out certain tasks. They’re going to be a premium for companies, the workers who do have those skills. We’ll likely see an increase in average wages for those types of positions as companies fight it out for the more qualified skilled workers.

But, as they say, necessity is the mother of all inventions. There’s some pretty smart people who will figure out there is a better way, a more automated way, to get the work done at a fraction of the cost.”

Aleco manufactures strip doors, impact doors, and air curtain systems for climate and airborne debris control.

Workforce Diversity

14) Dave Schneider, Marketing Manager, Hanel Storage Systems
Hanel Logo

“We look at workforce diversity as a really great thing. A lot of people come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a very transitional workforce here,’ or, ‘We’ve got a very multicultural workforce.’ So they’re looking for a machine that can accommodate that shift.

We can make our machines multilingual very easily. And I think that will continue to grow. We see a lot of manufacturing headed south or overseas. We see a lot of a diverse workforce coming into the United States.

So wherever you are, domestic or international, you’ve got a very broad mix of people. So machines have to keep pace, they have to accommodate that.”

Hanel manufactures vertical carousels and vertical lift modules for enhanced order picking productivity, better storage density, and ergonomic access to products.

RWM Casters Logo

15) Mike Twitty, Western Territory Manager, RWM Casters

“We have a lot of younger people with us now, whereas the industry and the market used to be a lot older. So it’s kind of like the new ship is coming in and it’s different.

But that presents a real opportunity: We’ve had new people come in and soak up information from those who’ve been in the workforce for decades. At the same time, we’re learning from and catering to the Millennials, the future of the industry.”

RWM is a leading manufacturer of industrial casters and wheels.

Final Thoughts

There are several schools of thought when it comes to shifting workforce demographics within the manufacturing sector. Some view the challenges of the older generation of workers retiring and the younger generation entering the workforce as significant, while others view the change as an opportunity to increase investment in technology and automation and diversify the workforce.

Whatever the case, it’s clear from the data and growth projections the industry will look vastly different in the future. Where does your organization come down on the so-called manufacturing skills gap?

©iStockphoto.com/Johnny Greig

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Scott Stone Cisco-Eagle's Director of Marketing. He has over 25 years of experience in the industry.