Manufacturers Are Hiring Again; What Skills Are They Looking For?

Good news keeps coming from US manufacturing. Since the beginning of 2011, the manufacturing industry has added over 100,000 jobs to the economy. Economists expect this trend to continue, predicting that manufacturing employment will increase by another 230,000 jobs before year end. Add to that twenty-one consecutive months of revenue growth and you’ve got a much improved picture of US manufacturing.

Of course this is only a small step in the right direction. Manufacturing shed over 5 million jobs in the last decade. Meanwhile its overall contribution to the economy has been in steady decline. The industry has a long way to travel on the path to recovery, but the near term hiring outlook is expected to trend upward.

A recent KPMG International survey of manufacturing executives confirms this projection. Roughly 41% of US manufacturing executives plan to hire in the coming year. That’s great news. But the manufacturers of today are looking for a different kind of worker.

For better or worse, the jobs that once required a largely unskilled, trainable workforce are declining or moving overseas. Manufacturing no longer needs legions of trainable employees that specialize in a single skill. The prevalence of computer-controlled machinery–managed by systems like job shop manufacturing software–now demands manufacturing workers that possess a combination of math skills, intuition, stamina, and often a college degree. Workers who hope to get in on the hiring rebound will need to acquire a high tech skill set.

Here’s a brief summary of the trends I expect to see in manufacturing employment over the next few years. You’ll note that positions requiring brawn over brains are expected to decline.

Historical Manufacturing Roles

Sorters, Samplers, & Weighers
Painting and Coating Workers
Assemblers & Fabricators
Machinists
Machine Operators
Technicians

The increases in historical manufacturing roles that value high-tech skills will be coupled by increases in employment of workers with engineering skills. These roles will be defined by creating more efficient manufacturing and supply chain processes, and engineering better and more efficient machines. I think it is safe to say that the following jobs will play a significant role in the future of manufacturing.

Manufacturing Roles With a Future

Manufacturing Software Engineers
Manufacturing Process Engineers
Automated Systems Engineers
Supply Chain Engineers

The Loss of “Old-Line” Manufacturing

We’ve moved out of an age where a pair of hands, a strong back, and a healthy work ethic is all that’s needed to get a good paying job in manufacturing. The shift away from “old-line” manufacturing toward more advanced, computer-assisted manufacturing has changed the type of worker needed. Of course, this shift is nothing new – it is the result of a couple of decades of incorporating information technology and automation into our manufacturing processes. As these processes grow increasingly complex, the need for specialized and adaptable workers grows as well.

Many jobs that were once commonplace, like manual sorting, are now gone. Much like digital switches replaced phone operators, automation on the shop floor has replaced much of the manual labor workforce, and for much the same reason. A different kind of worker is needed. The talent management group Pearson summed up the skills changeover nicely.

Old World
New World
Learning one or two specific technical roles Mechanical reasoning, logic trouble shooting, and spatial visualization
Physical strength and flexibility Personal flexibility, communication, and cooperation
Ability to follow fixed, unchanging procedures Initiative, persistance, and independence
General attention to production and safety procedures Attention to detail, self-control, and dependability
Following orders Making independent decisions
Operating, maintaining, designing mechanical machinery Operating computers or computerized machinery and using computers for a wide range of critical functions

Source: Changes in the required skills and traits of manufacturing personnel from Pearson TalentLens.

Today, manufacturers need workers who either have a technical skill set or possess trade-based skills that machines cannot adequately perform. These are in high demand and short supply.

What are some of the skills that modern manufacturers are looking for?

  • Knowledge of mechanical and electrical engineering processes
  • Ability to work with computerized systems
  • Ability to read and write machine programming code
  • Ability to read manufacturing blueprints
  • Ability to operate automated manufacturing systems
  • Understanding of hydraulic, pneumatic, and electrical systems

Manufacturers Can’t Find the Talent They Need

As US manufacturing technology has advanced, workers have struggled to keep pace with the changes. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) recently reported that over 80% of manufacturers are having difficulty finding qualified talent to fill their employment needs. This labor shortage is exacerbated by the retirement of Baby Boomers. NAM cites this as the country’s most business-critical issue facing manufacturing today.

The Global Intelligence Alliance (GIA) expands on this sentiment. In a recent survey of 95 global manufacturing executives, the GIA found that the the lack of workforce skills is the top concern for manufacturers across the world – beating out concerns over bank lending, the price of oil, regulation of the industry, and even that dirty five letter word, taxes.

The shortage of skilled labor is both a problem and an opportunity. It is a problem that manufacturers everywhere are anxious to overcome. It is an opportunity that individuals seeking manufacturing employment across the nation should rush to exploit.

Capitalizing on the Skills Gap

Like other industries, manufacturing is increasingly becoming a knowledge-based profession. The primary work objectives of the job are accomplished through critical thinking and know-how rather than through physical labor. Today there is a critical shortage of workers in engineering and skilled crafts. The skills that manufacturers need desperately are skills that work in tandem with the technology applications present in manufacturing today.

Manufacturers need workers that have at least a working knowledge of computers, mathematics, and an ability to think critically. Yet many times this is not enough. These baseline skills will only get your foot in the door. Since automation has gotten rid of many manual manufacturing tasks, the focus is on preventative maintenance, technical troubleshooting, and machine programming. As such, many factories want, for example technicians who can debug assembly lines by restoring garbled code in plant’s operating software. Engineers, lathers, and CNC machinists are also in very high demand.

These skills can’t be taught from a manual. They’re also not the kind of skills that can be learned on a short-term basis. Obtaining these skills requires a certain level of education – ranging from trade school certification to a bachelor’s degree – and must be learned through experience, training, and critical thinking.

There is also high demand for trade-based labor. Trades that require lots of experiential training, and lead to advanced skills and journeyman status, are in high demand. Tool and die making, mould making, and advanced machining are all dying arts in the US. And there is great opportunity for people willing to learn injection mould making, tool making, and machining trades.

Key Takeaways

  • Technology advancements in manufacturing have created a skills gap in the workforce.
  • Manufacturing workers best suited to fill the gap possess technical skills that compliment automation and information technology.
  • There is still a high demand for workers that have trade-based skills.

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