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Pandemic compounds manufacturing workforce shortage, robots not filling the void

May 27, 2021
By: Colin Edwards

Manufacturers in the U.S. have been facing workforce shortages despite nearly six years of recent job gains in the sector. Those gains and more have been wiped out by the Covid-19 pandemic, compounding the labor shortage problem for a sector that has often struggled to keep pace with the changing demands of technology. However, this exacerbated labor shortage shows that robots are not taking all the jobs, only increasing the level of tech skills workers need to do their jobs. A recent report from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute identifies several of the challenges facing employers in overcoming the shortfall, including weaknesses in local apprenticeship and job skills training programs, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts to broaden the workforce.

Despite decades of pressure from foreign producers and companies offshoring manufacturing jobs, the sector still plays an important role in the U.S. economy. For every $1 spent in manufacturing, another $2.74 is added to the total economy. According to the Deloitte report, leaving the current shortfall of roughly 500,000 jobs unfilled could result in a $1 trillion loss to the U.S. economy by 2030.

Employers have struggled for some time against the misconception of manufacturing jobs as dirty and dangerous when trying to attract a new generation of workers with little or no skills to the sector, as well as skilled mid-career workers. Beyond the perception problem, the adoption of production technologies is expected to continue quickening in factories across the globe, raising the minimum skill threshold for workers and increasing the difficulty of filling open positions.

With pay thresholds typically too low for most production-related occupations to allow workers to relocate, manufacturers must source a majority of their workforce from their local labor pools. Local apprenticeship and job skills training programs must maintain ties with local manufacturers to align employer needs with employee education and training. The report points out the challenge is in matching pre-employment training to locations where there is demand for jobs, ensuring there is a structure to match students to programs and graduates to employers.

The report also points out the manufacturing sector’s problem with underrepresentation by women and historically marginalized groups. Historically a male-dominated sector, women remain less likely to enter the manufacturing sector and more likely to leave the sector if already there. The report suggests that the pandemic has likely exacerbated this issue, pointing to deeper structural issues. DEI programs aimed at attracting and maintaining women and historically marginalized groups may prove the solution to many of the sector’s workforce needs. Proven to improve business performance and innovation, DEI programs must also reach across organizations and target local populations.

manufacturing, report, workforce