Plant Engineering Workforce Development Study: Lack of skilled workers leading to unfilled jobs

Finding qualified workers to fill needed manufacturing jobs has continued to remain a problem for companies and it is limiting their ability to expand operations.


Manufacturing has a skills gap; that much is understood by industry professionals. As the recently completed Workforce Development Study of the issue by Plant Engineering reveals, identifying the solution to this issue remains elusive.

Courtesy: Plant EngineeringPlant Engineering surveyed its readers in July 2013 on the prevailing attitudes about hiring and training in manufacturing. The fundamental problem remains acute, as 59% of plant managers reported a skilled workforce shortage in their plant. In addition, 22% of the plants said more than 10% of jobs are unfilled for this reason.

It’s a lack of skills, not a lack of workers that is impacting this issue more acutely; 78% of manufacturers reported a lack of skills as the biggest challenge they currently face in filling their skills gap; only 33% blame a lack of applicants.

Perhaps more important, one-third of respondents said the worker shortage is keeping them from expanding their operations.

Too many plant managers feel they are on their own in trying to solve this problem. While 43% feel they can get help from the high schools and community colleges, approximately one-third feel they’ll have to solve the problem themselves because they won’t get adequate help from regional or local agencies.

In response, manufacturers are using a wide range of new recruitment tools and channels:

  • 63% of manufacturers are recruiting online
  • 54% reach out to community colleges
  • 22% reach out to high schools
  • 21% reach out to veterans.

Courtesy: Plant EngineeringWhile manufacturers are active in their communities, that activity hasn’t extended to vocational education; just 24% said they are involved in such programs locally, yet 55% are members of their local Chamber of Commerce, and 42% sponsor youth sports teams.

That local involvement may explain one of the largest gaps in this survey. While 57% don’t feel manufacturing is seen as a positive career choice in the U.S. as a whole, 85% believe their plant is seen in a positive light in their own community.

Respondents had a wide variety of views on how to improve that perception, which most believe is the key to getting more attention on skilled jobs in manufacturing. Among the comments:

  • “It's not seen as glamorous or desirable. The pay and stability would indicate that it is, but the public relations needs to catch up to the reality.”
  • “Strengthen connection between manufacturing and actual wealth creation instead of just moving wealth around as in other disciplines (law, government, etc). Stop worrying so much about how we compare to doctors, lawyers, etc., in the public eye. Those who work in manufacturing know they are contributing to wealth creation.”
  • “As we deal with the new work force there is a gap from both sides. The young work force is taught that they will change jobs 7 to 10 times in their career. Companies tend to reinforce this by not addressing the needs of the current generation.”
  • “Convincing young people that manufacturing offers a rewarding career if you like long hours, physical activity, multiple demands, and teamwork when none of these are typically seen as very ‘glamorous.’”
  • “Educate the masses on what the manufactured goods and services do to keep the economy going.”
  • “Expand apprenticeship programs and communicate to K-8, junior high schools and high schools opportunities in manufacturing. This must be done by the school systems. Company and union leadership should also promote manufacturing opportunities within their region.”
  • “I don't think many understand the amount of technical skills required in manufacturing or the pay level.”

Gerry , Ontario, Canada, 09/24/13 11:37 AM:

The corollary is underskilled workers i.e. individuals that are marginally able to meet the requirement to fill the gap. Unfortunately, this starts at about grade 2. With women now in the majority of post secondary graduates, the traditional male/female imbalance in STEM program participation is not helpful. Also, post-secondary institutions increasingly filling STEM seats with foreign students is masking the problem.
Gerry , Ontario, Canada, 09/24/13 11:45 AM:

HR professionals are also part of the problem. Too often, recruiters have no real idea of what's actually needed: this typically results in a stream of candidates that are not a good match to requirement which creates an overly strong impression that skills are lacking even more than they are.
Retention is another issue: given a shortage of skilled labor, companies overload their skilled labor to the breaking point. If nothing else, overload reduces the level of performance of skilled employees, in effect exacerbating the skills shortage.
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Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

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