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Recent research: Urban and rural manufacturers talent strategies diverge, lessons for community colleges, manufacturers and others

November 16, 2023
By: Casey Nemecek

The challenge of attracting and retaining skilled manufacturing talent consistently ranks as a top concern in the industry. Recent findings from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) show that more than 70% of industry leaders cite workforce issues as their primary challenge for the past year, outpacing supply chain disruptions and rising raw material costs. To better understand this challenge, the Manufacturing Institute has released a new report exploring how location influences manufacturing companies’ talent development efforts. The study surveyed over 100 manufacturing firms, asking about strategies for attracting and recruiting new workers in rural versus urban settings to identify key workforce challenges for rural and urban manufacturing firms and to uncover solutions they have implemented to address their immediate and long-term workforce needs. 

The Manufacturing Institute’s report provides an overview of the strategies employed by urban and rural manufacturers to address talent attraction and development, highlighting similarities and differences in their approaches:

Addressing skills shortages

The report finds that rural manufacturers more frequently promote internal training programs, with 77.6% of rural-based firms doing so compared to 66.2% of urban-based ones. Collaborations with educational institutions for skills training and certificate programs are also more prevalent in rural settings, with 67.1% of rural manufacturers collaborating, versus 48.5% in urban areas. Rural manufacturers are also more likely to encourage retirement-aged employees to stay longer, a trend seen in 52.6% of rural respondents compared to 39.7% of urban ones. In comparison, urban manufacturers tend to rely more heavily on temporary staffing services, with 73.5% utilizing this approach compared to 48.7% of rural firms. 

Recruitment methods

Employee referrals and online job boards are the most common recruitment methods for both urban and rural manufacturers. Over 70% of rural firms use partnerships with educational institutions like community colleges as a recruitment tool, compared to 55.1% of urban firms. Rural manufacturers also show a preference for job fairs, with 65.8% using them compared to 56.5% of urban firms. Similar to their approach to addressing skills shortages, 73.9% of urban respondents reported relying on temp agencies, a method used by less than half of rural respondents. Apprenticeship programs are used at similar rates in both settings, with just over 25% of manufacturers engaging in such programs.

Retention incentives

Competitive wages are a primary retention strategy for both rural and urban firms. Rural manufacturers more frequently promote referral bonuses, career advancement opportunities, and tuition reimbursement than do urban manufacturers, according to the survey results. Other incentives include professional development opportunities, flexible scheduling, sign-on bonuses, paid relocation expenses, and housing support. Notably, 4.1% of rural manufacturers provide childcare support, a benefit not reported by urban respondents.

In addition to these strategies, the Manufacturing Institute report highlights the significance of workplace culture and environment in talent retention for both urban and rural manufacturers. Survey respondents from the study indicated that a positive and inclusive work culture is key for fostering employee engagement and long-term commitment. The report further notes that many employers promote career advancement opportunities as part of their talent retention efforts. It also describes a growing trend towards flexible work arrangements and benefits tailored to individual employee needs, suggesting a shift towards a more personalized and adaptive approach in workforce development.


Lorain County Community College’s role in economic development

Lorain County Community College (LCCC) offers one example of educational institutions’ important role in regional workforce development. Located about 25 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio, LCCC has a long history of forging strong partnerships with employers, industry associations, and the broader community to address the evolving needs of the manufacturing sector.

Central to LCCC’s approach is a commitment to innovative training methods closely aligned with industry demands, as detailed in the book America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity (Harvard University Press, 2023). This proactive approach to curriculum development includes working directly with faculty to ensure that LCCC’s programs are current and directly relevant to the local job market. Additionally, LCCC integrates employers into the educational framework by inviting them to serve on advisory boards and as adjunct faculty, further bridging the gap between academic training and real-world application.

One example of LCCC’s innovative approach in action is its microelectronic manufacturing (MEMS) program. Launched in 2013 in response to a recognized need for specialized training in the field, the MEMS program exemplifies LCCC’s commitment to hands-on and industry-aligned education. This program was developed through a collaborative effort with over 70 industry stakeholders, ensuring that the curriculum addresses the skills and knowledge required to excel in the microelectronics sector.

To meet both employer and student needs, the MEMS program offers a variety of educational pathways, providing multiple on- and off-ramps for learners at different stages of their careers. From short-term certificates designed for rapid skill acquisition and early entry into the workforce to a comprehensive bachelor’s degree, the program is structured to adapt to the evolving demands of the microelectronics sector. This flexibility not only supports students in tailoring their education to their career goals but also ensures that employers have access to a workforce equipped with a range of skills and levels of expertise.

LCCC’s approach serves as an example of how educational institutions can actively contribute to addressing workforce challenges in their region, by closely aligning its offerings to industry needs.

This article was prepared by SSTI using Federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070129 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

advanced manufacturing, workforce, recent research