Fluid Power Journal

An Emerging Workforce Crisis for U.S. Manufacturers

robert-labombardA sound recruitment strategy can help small- and mid-sized manufacturers stay competitive in the hunt for talent

Manufacturing companies across the country are searching high and low for trained, experienced workers for drill press, welding, lathe, injection molding, and a myriad of other manufacturing positions. Despite rapidly rising salaries, an estimated 600,000 skilled jobs are unfilled according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The days of placing help-wanted ads, receiving multiple applications, and hiring the best from a slate of qualified candidates are long gone.

What happened? Slowly and gradually over the past 30 years, the number of workers with the required skills for manufacturing jobs has declined substantially. Here are some of the contributing factors:

  1. Foreign competition, and the shift of manufacturing south of the border or to Asia, resulted in millions of lost jobs. As result, younger workers were forced to look for jobs in other fields.
  2. The Information Age and rapid growth in technology produced high demand and plentiful jobs for people with information-technology skills.
  3. High schools and vocational schools shifted curricula away from metalworking, woodworking, and similar “shop” coursework and shifted resources into computer, software, and high-tech education.
  4. Public perception placed more emphasis on the four-year college degree and its pathway to a high-paying, so-called “white-collar” career. Fueled by more financial-aid money, college application and matriculation rates substantially increased.

These and other factors decimated the demand for training in skilled manufacturing trades among young people. Clearly, we’re paying the price today.

Despite the current situation, there is room for optimism in making the manufacturing trades more attractive. Consider these facts:

  1. According to government statistics, only about 55% of the people who enter college actually graduate within six years. While the cost of college is clearly an issue, it’s safe to say that college probably isn’t the best post-secondary educational option for a lot of high school graduates.
  2. Data from various sources indicates that as many as 80% of new college grads are leaving campus without professional jobs using their degree. While most will find jobs, it is estimated that as many as 50% will be underemployed.
  3. About 70% of new college grads don’t know where their education and skills can be applied in the workforce (i.e., they don’t know what jobs are a fit).
  4. The average entry-level job for new grads pays around $40,000—far less than what a skilled-trades job might pay for a high school grad at 22 with 3-4 years of experience.

A college education is still a fantastic investment for a lot of young people after high school. However, college is not the best option for everyone, as the above information suggests. While college is not the right answer for all high school graduates, I firmly believe that all of them should have some type of post-secondary education.

Success in any type of recruiting is all about the law of supply and demand. The more qualified candidates you have, the easier it is to fill open positions. With this in mind, industry groups and companies can do more to increase the supply of people with the right skills and education.

Here are five things that manufacturing industries can do now to increase the availability of skilled workers:

  1. Government, broadcasters, and industry associations could collaborate on advertising and/or public service announcements providing education on jobs and career opportunities available in manufacturing.
  2. Local chapters of industry groups and member companies could visit high schools and vocational schools to promote careers in their industries.
  3. Local chapters of industry groups and member companies could offer to provide financial support to fund the development of jobs-training curricula in the manufacturing trades.
  4. Companies could sponsor internships to support high school and vocational training.
  5. Industry professionals could support political candidates who support the manufacturing trades and the development of effective educational programs in the trades.

While these initiatives will not provide instantaneous payback, it doesn’t take long for an intern or apprentice to make an impact after receiving a two-year degree from a quality vocational technical college.

Manufacturing jobs are once again in high demand, offering great pay and attractive benefits. With interest in these jobs battered over the years, industry trade groups and member companies have much to offer and be proud of. The key to success moving forward will be to aggressively promote the opportunities available and to invest in high-quality educational programs. Once understood, for many younger job seekers, the manufacturing trades will be their career path of choice.


Robert J. LaBombard is the CEO for GradStaff, Inc. Serving a national client base, GradStaff provides an outsourced college-recruiting program to help hiring companies fill entry-level positions. LaBombard has over 30 years of business experience in the chemical, environmental, professional services, and staffing industries. For more information, visit www.gradstaff.com.

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