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Tackling the manufacturing hiring crisis

manufacturing hiring crisis

(AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Chris Campbell
plant manager at the PPG Oak Creek site

“We are hiring.” How many times have you seen that this week? Or even just today? It seems no industry is immune from the labor shortage crisis.

For manufacturing, the labor shortage pre-dates the pandemic by a decade, with baby boomers driving a mass exodus of skilled, experienced talent from the industry since the 2010s.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce is age 55 or older. Couple this with the fact that typical “baby boomer” retirements have more than doubled during the pandemic, with 1.5 million being early retirements, and it’s easy to see (and feel) we are at a tipping point.

The industry has been trying to change the perception of manufacturing jobs among young people for decades, but common misperceptions about manufacturing careers continue to be the demise in attracting and retaining talent.

study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that manufacturers will need to hire 4.6 million workers by 2028, yet nearly half of those jobs could go unfilled. Why? Less than 50 percent of the upcoming workforce sees manufacturing as a viable career. In fact, manufacturing is dead last among career choices for Americans aged 18-24. And worse, only three in 10 parents would suggest a manufacturing career to their children, despite recognizing its importance to the national economy and defense.

The problem is enormous. The National Association of Manufacturers says more than 70 percent of manufacturers cite the inability to attracted skilled workers as their top challenge. Given the grim statistics, what are plant managers with open jobs to do? The list is daunting, but right now, shifts in thinking will be critical.

Keep dispelling the myths. National Manufacturing Week, Oct. 7-14, is an annual celebration across the country. Manufacturing jobs are aplenty and a viable career choice; the work is innovative, clean, and safe; and positions pay well. According to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, the average U.S. manufacturing worker makes $77,506. And automated processes and robotics used on plant floors are actually creating more jobs. In fact, manufacturers in Wisconsin account for 18.57 percent of the total output in the state, employing 16.97 percent of the workforce, according to NAM.

Do whatever it takes to retain the workers you have. Burnout and feeling expendable are driving forces for employee resignation. Celebrate manufacturing as a great place to work and acknowledge the role that each individual plays in the organization’s overall success.

Upskill your existing workforce: Training, retraining and upskilling from within keeps employees engaged and allows companies to creatively address staffing shortages by reallocating workers to areas of need. Promote a culture of professional growth and agility.

Source from the full talent pool. We know women and people of color remain an under-tapped talent pool for the manufacturing industry. There’s also a contingent of workers who often are filtered out by hiring software. More than 70 million American workers don’t have a college degree but are knows as STARS – Skilled Through Alternative Routes. Proactively seek out this talent.

Create high school-to-career pathways. Establish partnerships with local high schools to provide immersive learning experiences. High schoolers, as well as the adults in their lives, likely have no idea that many entry-level, well-paying manufacturing jobs go unfilled. These are positions that do not require technical know-how or industry knowledge, but rather require skills such as following directions, willingness to learn and attention to detail. Celebrate these workers and upskill them along the way. Local opportunities are available, such as the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which  lists local technical colleges for high school students to pursue manufacturing opportunities.

Establish pre-apprenticeship programs to fast-track students into manufacturing careers. These bridge programs provide early training and education opportunities for students to earn industry-recognized credentials and certifications. The benefits of these efforts will far outweigh the upfront costs and logistics.

Speak directly with parents. Find every opportunity to talk with parents. If they continue to perceive manufacturing as a large, dark and dirty shop floor with workers standing in an assembly line, they will continue to dissuade their children from pursuing a manufacturing career.

Invest in local community partners. Right in our backyards, local nonprofit and community organizations are cultivating talent and can provide your organization access to the students you want to reach. Form meaningful relationships with these organizations and financially support their work. There is a lot already being done to expose students to career opportunities, starting in elementary school. For example, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance works with educators to encourage the K-12 population to pursue manufacturing careers while teaching them to be critical thinkers and real-world problem solvers.

We know that manufacturing is the backbone of economic recovery, and the next decade will be an exciting time for workers in the field. Despite pandemic business disruptions, most manufacturing companies predict growth in sales, employment, production and wages in the next year alone. This is the story that needs to be heralded if we have any chance of tackling the manufacturing workforce shortage.

At PPG, we are thriving and we are hiring. We’d love to talk with you about joining the team. Learn more at (general site) or link to careers tab on the site:

Chris Campbell is plant manager at the PPG Oak Creek site. She has more than 13 years of experience in manufacturing and is on the Leadership Council of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. More than 570 employees work at the Oak Creek site, and there are currently 60 job openings. The site produces industrial, automotive and packaging materials.

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