How the Shortage of Skilled Trades Workers Hurts Manufacturing

A recent study from the Washington Post found that as many as 600,000 manufacturing positions may be languishing for lack of qualified applicants. And things may get worse before they get better: Forbes quotes figures from Manpower stating that the majority of skilled laborers in this country are aged 45 and older—and as this sizable population retires, the gap between need and capability will widen even further. As Tulsa Welding School points out, the economy continues to recover and grow, and manufacturing sales have become steadily healthier. With such growth, the manufacturing industry is now focused on finding sufficient numbers of skilled tradespeople to keep up with the rising demand.

Specific Examples

While the general lack of skilled labor is hurting manufacturers across the board, some specific manufacturers are particularly starved for certain necessary types of expertise. For example, Louisville Business First noted that GE Appliances is spending more than $1 million to construct its own technical training center simply to cope with the company’s desperate need for machinists and electricians. A lack of skilled welders on the Gulf Coast has severely crippled the oil and gas industry in the midst of the shale boom there, according to Bloomberg; the industry has an urgent need to hire approximately 36,000 new welders by 2016. That’s a lot of available work—and no available workers. In the construction sector, the National Skilled Trades Network reports that a lack of skilled labor is stretching the workforce to the point that on-the-job injuries are on the rise.

An Image Problem for Skilled Labor
Why are manufacturers finding it so hard to fill these jobs? The answer may lie partly in the way young working-age people view them. The image of hazardous, dirty facilities and backbreaking, low-paying work requiring little skill or smarts continues to linger, despite the fact that modern skilled trades careers vary greatly from their predecessors.

ATS cites a national poll in which more than half of all the teenagers surveyed expressed little or no desire to take up any manufacturing trade. These individuals have no exposure to or understanding of the modern manufacturing environment, in which tradespeople use state-of-the-art equipment, computer programming, and the latest in robotic technology every day—opportunities they’d never receive working in a “cubicle farm.” On the other hand, the fact that these jobs require training in such skills means that high-school graduates can’t just leap into them; in fact, many interested parties may have no idea where to pursue such training even if they knew they needed it. This, too, adds to the recruitment gap.

Awareness Could Be the Answer
What can manufacturers do to reclaim their missing skilled trades candidates? It’s largely a matter of encouraging people to consider vocational training and a career in skilled labor. Shop teachers, school counselors, and anyone else in the position of guiding tech-minded kids should at least mention the possibility of a career as a welder, electrician, or other skilled tradesperson. Interested graduates should also be told where they can receive the instruction they need to qualify for the many jobs out there. Major manufacturers could launch awareness campaigns, including referral bonuses, new-hire incentives, and a public relations effort to let the world know just how rewarding and exciting a career in skilled trades can be. The jobs are there—all that’s needed now are the right people to fill them.