Think we're getting younger? Dream on...

The inability to find younger workers in manufacturing continues to be a growing problem as the workforce gets older and older


Every time that I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer…

- Dream On, Aerosmith 

They started showing up last month in groups of five or six at a time. Infiltrating. Expanding. Taking hold and taking control.

I’m starting to go gray.

This is a major revelation, and something I have worked hard to avoid, and then ignore. I have spoken with my hair at length to try and forestall the inevitable. And honestly, I’ve held out longer than I expected.

But then I hearken back to Steven Tyler’s haunting lyrics, and I realize that time marches on. We’re all headed in the same direction at the same pace. Some of us are just farther along the journey.

If there is one statistic from Plant Engineering’s 2013 Salary Survey that drives this point home, it’s that our readers have, as a group, aged one year on average every year for the past five years. That’s what’s supposed to happen, right? Well, statistically, no. What’s supposed to happen is that some people drop off the far end, and other people jump on the near end, and taking into account all the variables in between, the numbers should fluctuate and move more than that.

But they aren’t. Collectively, we as a group are getting a year older every year. And that does not bode well for our industry. The new blood we’ve been waiting for hasn’t arrived, and we need a transfusion of youth, and soon.

The single biggest threat to American manufacturing’s dominant resurgence in the last five years is the ability of this sector to keep pace with the growth demands. We have done amazing things in the last five years. American manufacturing again leads the world in productivity and output, and while Europe has staggered under a less robust economic recovery and China is buried by the weight of its own oversized growth needs, the U.S. manufacturer has won global admiration—and won back jobs at the same time.

The other big statistic from this year’s Salary Survey is the widening gap between the issue of workforce development and all the other issues in manufacturing. According to Plant Engineering readers, the Skills Gap in manufacturing has been the No. 1 issue facing manufacturing plant for the nine years we’ve been asking that question. Before the recession, during the recession, and after the recession, that’s been what plant managers have worried about. At the height of the 2009 recession, economic issues were also top of mind, but the Skills Gap has prevailed as a factor inhibiting manufacturing plant floor leaders from reaching greater productivity.

Every year the recognition of the problem grows greater, and every year the situation grows direr. And every year we miss another opportunity to recruit and retain and revitalize our industry with fresh talent and a fresh view of our opportunities.

This month we write about the opportunity for military veterans to join the ranks of manufacturing and help plug this gap. We do so with the full knowledge that even if every military veteran leaving service this year took every available manufacturing job, we’d still only be halfway to fully plugging the Skills Gap. And we know that’s not going to happen.

Veterans provide a few things we look for in every employee hire: They have been trained on the most sophisticated equipment available. They are disciplined and committed to completing tasks. They come with an uncommon commitment to doing a job. They volunteered for military service, and beyond our gratitude for their service, they also deserve recognition for the act of stepping up to take on a tough job.

As our story points out, this is not a straight line solution. As the people we talked to about this issue admit, the military and the manufacturer don’t do their jobs the same way, or with the same goals. Also, when you talk about large numbers of people, you tend to forget about the individuals in that group, and there are many issues individuals face in their journey out of the military and back into civilian life.

Whatever we owe to our soldiers, we also must recognize that time continues to tick by, and we are no closer to making a significant dent in our problem. More than any other factor, time is our enemy.

And one look in the mirror reminds us all: We’re not getting any younger.

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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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