How to Solve the Looming Manufacturing Skills Gap

Joe Weinlick
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A gap has opened in the American manufacturing sector, and business as usual can't close it. The problem is a deficit between the 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs the Manufacturing Institute has projected to open in the period between 2015 to 2025 and the nearly 2 million skilled workers not present to fill those jobs. If the U.S. manufacturing sector is to fill those jobs, economists argue, something has to change.

The manufacturing gap was the subject of a 2001 report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte that has received regular updates as new numbers have come available. As of 2016, the 2-million-worker gap represents all of the highly skilled engineers, fabricators and other essential workers not passing through American universities and taking their places in one of the most productive sectors of the economy.

The American manufacturing sector is serious business. All by itself, this sector is larger than most of the national economies of the world. Every year, it's responsible for adding over $2 trillion to the gross domestic product, and investment in this sector has traditionally had downstream effects on every other sector. For every manufacturing job in the United States, an estimated 2.5 jobs appear in the community near the employing plant.

The benefits of domestic manufacturing don't end with large-scale economic effects. Relatively recent technological changes in the production of goods have made factory workers much more productive than in the past, and their average wages reflect that. The average manufacturing worker in the United States earns $77,000 a year, which is far higher than the national average, reports CNBC. Entry-level engineers earn salaries in the high five figures, making this one of the most promising fields for new graduates looking for lucrative careers.

But those graduates haven't shown up, according to the Manufacturing Institute's numbers. Part of the problem, identified by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, is that many Americans have a very old-fashioned idea about what a job in manufacturing is like. She suggests that young people, picturing factory work as it was in the 1950s, imagine a career in manufacturing as a series of boring, uncreative line jobs with repetitive duties and little opportunity for advancement. This grim picture may drive promising young people away from careers as engineers and machinists, two fields in desperate need of skilled hands.

This obsolete picture is in direct conflict with the kind of high-tech jobs that the modern manufacturing sector creates, and Pritzker suggests public-awareness campaigns to promote awareness of the great jobs available all over the country. One approach is to promote industry-education partnerships that encourage young people to pursue engineering specialties. By staging career day events and factory tours for teenagers, manufacturers may be able to spark interest among just the type of bright young minds most dearly needed.

Another approach to closing the manufacturing gap is direct recruitment in universities across the country. Many young undergraduates enter college undecided on their majors. By reaching these students as freshmen, or at least early enough that they can choose manufacturing-friendly majors such as metallurgy or mechanical engineering, the future job market could be well-staffed by qualified young jobseekers.

A final, and somewhat drastic, alternative to letting 2 million jobs go unfilled is to import the talent American manufacturers need from overseas. As of 2013, more than 5 million of America's 28.9 million engineers were born overseas, according to the National Science Foundation. This number has climbed since at least 2003, as foreign STEM students take up residence in the United States and do jobs for which too few native-born citizens have qualification.

The gap that has opened continues to widen in American manufacturing is an unfolding crisis that threatens to slow the growth of a major sector of the economy. Proposed solutions to the problem range from inspirational campaigns targeted at young people to recruiting booths on college campuses. In the meantime, ambitious immigrants moving to the United States continue to close the gap.

Photo Courtesy of Brian Sinclair at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. @Katharine I guess it depends upon where you live as to how much emphasis was put on factory work. And yes, in those days, people did the majority of the work with some of the more advanced factories using machine power. It's a shame that thinking about a manufacturing job would back to mind the pictures that were in our textbooks in school or from the movies where the factory was ugly, cold and dirty. Not the case today. @Hema certainly experienced workers could be trained to fill the gap if companies were willing to cough up the money for the training. Even after 8 years since the financial crisis, many manufacturers are holding on by a thread with no extra money left over for training.

  • Katharine M.
    Katharine M.

    I definitely didn't hear a lot about manufacturing careers in high school or college, and I probably did have the preconceived notion that it was a very menial, repetitive job, as the article says. Career fairs and courses are probably the best way to give new members of the workforce a sense of what manufacturing jobs entail and what the benefits are.

  • Hema Zahid
    Hema Zahid

    Is it possible to train experienced workers for manufacturing jobs and have them fill up the gap in the workforce? Thanks to technological advances manufacturing jobs are not as labor intensive as they used to be and I’m sure plenty of people would jump at the opportunity to start working again. I don’t know if companies can provide adequate training for workers of all ages though.

  • Jacqueline Parks
    Jacqueline Parks

    I think that college is too late to try to encourage youth to pursue careers in manufacturing. We need to start with those in high school, providing information and a strong STEM foundation to help student become excited about manufacturing careers. When I was in high school, I went on a tour of a large diesel engine manufacturing plant. This left me in awe of the whole manufacturing sector. I would like to seem more factory tours and courses that directly link to the manufacturing sector in secondary schools.

  • Mia Greenwood
    Mia Greenwood

    I agree with showing teenagers what a manufacturing really entails, and I would also include offering practical courses as part of the high school curriculum. Students are thinking about career paths earlier than college. I also agree with William that we should go further and offer kid-friendly programs for elementary school students to start speaking interest.

  • James D.
    James D.

    The solution is really, really simple. Hire people and train them. There are lots of job openings for people with tons of experience, but few for new graduates.

  • Jacob T.
    Jacob T.

    Direct recruitment only really address one small facet of the available workforce. By limiting themselves to recruiting undergraduate students, manufacturing employers spend large amounts of resources on relatively little return. Students may be unwilling to stay in a given location and are likely to change their desired career path again.

  • Mike Van de Water
    Mike Van de Water

    William I'm with you, by the time kids are teenagers it's probably already too late. But with today's technology, it would be pretty easy to come up with some seriously impressive videos that are kid-friendly. I'll admit that I also thought of this type of work as boring and monotonous. Perhaps a campaign aimed at workers looking to make a career change could also be effective. That's a pretty good salary, and lots of people are looking for a steady paycheck these days.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    Many colleges, especially two-year and vocational institutions, have partnered with local manufacturing firms to provide internships that allow students trained in the field to filter directly into jobs reserved for them. In addition, many of these institutions have created certificate programs with the input of manufacturing firms to cater the training directly for specific industries. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction to closing the gap.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    Thanks for the comments. Great ideas @William. I agree @Jane that the news media really stinks when it comes to covering the manufacturing industry. I, too, have seen news segments and ads that show factories that have been shuttered for years. Certainly people would turn away from that. Instead the news media needs to show the state of the art manufacturing facilities so that youth and teens can visualize where they might work. That could certainly help out the STEM programs in colleges, also.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    What kinds of programs do you think manufacturers should have for elementary-age kids? Factory tours for teenagers may not be enough. Cool demonstrations in the classroom that show what finished products do create a "wow" factor for impressionable minds. What about a "bring your child to work" program? Imagine the awesome demonstrations that could happen in a safe environment on the factory floor.

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    The mainstream media has been saying for years that America is moving to an economy based on service jobs and health care. When the news does cover manufacturing, they tend to focus on the "rust belt" and the decline of heavy industry. In my opinion, this creates a disconnect between the need for STEM-qualified job candidates and the perception of what majors college kids should pursue.

  • Duncan  Maranga
    Duncan Maranga

    I agree with the idea of closing the manufacturing gap through recruitment of university entrants directly into manufacturing and other related areas. This is because of the possibility of students changing their minds on their majors along the academic journey, due to complexity and rigorousness of the prerequisite academic programs. Grabbing them directly gives an assurance of manpower for the industry.

  • Lydia K.
    Lydia K.

    I disagree that the skills gap crisis is as dire as statistics can make it sound. The bigger issue is changing perceptions about recruiting and hiring. Companies may be short staffed because they can't find STEM trained college graduates. But many of these positions going unfilled don't need college trained engineers. People with various backgrounds can be trained on the job to do them.

  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Abbey it is certainly possible that, as manufacturing evolves, that we will see more of the manual labor type positions being taken up by robots or machines. But this is all part of progress. Say 100 years ago, there were very few machines used in manufacturing. Now look at it today. What happened to those manual laborers? They either learned how to move forward with technology or they found other positions outside of manufacturing. I remember working in the operations department of a truck manufacturer when the company first started to use robots to paint the trucks. Everyone bemoaned the fact that so many employees were going to be laid off. While, yes it was true that some were laid off, many of them were sent to school to learn how to operate the paint robots. So all of this is just natural progression and is truly expected. And no matter how many machines and robots we might have in manufacturing, we will always need a human to operate them and humans to repair them.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    I understand the thought process behind this change in manufacturing. I understand that technology is going to make this field more efficient. However, when these STEM candidates do start to fill the spots in the manufacturing sector, what will happen to the current manual workers? Will we see a shift from human workers to machines and robots, taking the place of these relatively uneducated and unskilled laborers?

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