Looming skills shortage prompts innovative workforce retention and recruiting strategies

A shortage of highly skilled manufacturing workers—the people running sophisticated equipment on the plant floor, as well as engineering and management professionals—poses a serious threat for North American industrial competitiveness. The shortage lies in the demographics as legions of baby boomers near retirement.


A shortage of highly skilled manufacturing workers—the people running sophisticated equipment on the plant floor, as well as engineering and management professionals—poses a serious threat for North American industrial competitiveness. The shortage lies in the demographics as legions of baby boomers near retirement.

Even though manufacturing often embodies advanced technologies and business practices, one problem is that the manufacturing industry has failed to update its image of smokestacks and grime to compete with blossoming appeal of other careers.

“Kids started to perceive industry wasn't cool. They wanted to major in business, make big money, pursue MBAs. Or they wanted to go into computers, without any idea what to do with them,” says Cliff Pedersen, manager of product production processes for Suncor Energy , a Calgary, Alberta-based oil & gas company.

Suncor is in the midst of a multicompany collaborative initiative in Sarnia, Ontario, known as “Chemical Valley” for the clustering of big plants along the St. Clair River south of Lake Huron. That initiative sparked Ontario's Ministry of Education to establish a three-year college program in Chemical Production Engineering Technology (CPET). Offered through Lambton College, it has attracted and graduated hundreds of young people. The model is being expanded regionally and underscores what's possible, given ingenuity and effort.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in services began to rise readily in 1950 as manufacturing employment steadily declined. While industrial automation and information technology improved productivity and reduced the need for manual labor, a “skills gap” study conducted by Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and New York-based Deloitte Consulting says 80 percent of manufacturers reported in 2005 an overall shortage of qualified workers, with 65 percent indicating a shortage of engineers and scientists.

Enterprise systems supplier Infor offers workforce and talent management software solutions that comprise a road map for companies looking to identify, mentor, and groom talent in-house.

“In addition to the whole baby boomer retirement issue, fewer people are going into engineering and scientific fields,” says Eric Cosman, internal engineering solutions IT consultant and a 32-year employee with Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical . Cosman is active in internal mentoring, and administrates employee outreach at job fairs to attract young people to industry.

Creating a level of excitement around careers in industry—and garnering government support for school curriculum development—is a major initiative among local and national groups in North America.

“The Automation Federation is an umbrella organization comprised of four automation groups—ISA, WBF, WINA, and OMAC—created to speak as one entity on this issue,” says Michael Marlowe, client manager and director of government relations.

The Automation Federation is lobbying Congress for creation and funding of two- and four-year automation engineering curriculum to foster workforce development. It also partners with the Department of Labor in the “Cool Jobs” campaign, and collaborates with the federal Manufacturing Extension Program (MEP), which supports small and midsize manufacturers.

Workforce development is an issue some enterprise software vendors are beginning to champion.

“The problem can seem too big to take on—like boiling the ocean,” says Brian Bowman, senior product manager, human capital management, for enterprise systems supplier Infor . But in addition to its workforce and talent management software, Infor has a road map for companies looking to identify, mentor, and groom talent in-house.

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Annual Salary Survey

Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.

There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.

But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.

Read more: 2015 Salary Survey

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