At Air Products & Chemicals Inc., about 150 skilled-labor jobs are open and unfilled at any given time in the United States. The positions run the gamut from welders and instrument electrical technicians who work with sophisticated controls to diesel mechanics, pipe fitters and mechanical engineering technicians.

See Also: Manufacturing Workforce Management Best Practices

Those unfilled positions represent 38% of the roughly 400 skilled-worker positions Air Products attempts to hire each year for its U.S. workforce, which numbers about 7,500.

"In some cases [a position] takes as long as a year to fill because of a mismatch of skills -- either in the skills area we need or in the geographic area where we need that skill," says John McGlade, chairman, president and CEO of the Allentown, Pa.-based firm.

John McGlad CEO of Air ProductsIt's a concern for Air Products (IW 500/107), and not only in the skilled labor arena -- although that is where McGlade says the issue is most acute for Air Products -- but across multiple talent levels. "We can't grow our business without talent at all different levels, with all different skill sets," the CEO says.

Like many U.S. manufacturers, Air Products attributes its talent shortages in part to an aging baby boomer generation who have begun their exodus from the U.S. workforce. The oldest baby boomers turned 65 on Jan. 1, 2011, and every day thereafter for about the next 19 years, some 10,000 more will reach the traditional retirement age, according to the Pew Research Center. 

But it's not just the departure of older, seasoned workers that is raising fears of vanishing manufacturing skills in the United States. The specter of knowledge walking out the door with retirees is buttressed by what many perceive as a lack of interest by young people in manufacturing as a career. 

"Very few students in school aspire to work in manufacturing," Pete Selleck, president and chairman of Michelin North America, said during a keynote address at the recent IndustryWeek Best Plants conference. As evidence, he pointed to a curriculum development process employed in South Carolina (where the tire manufacturer's North American headquarters is located), in which students at a certain age begin to identify the career "clusters" that interest them. While STEM ranked third, "that's good news," manufacturing ranked 14th of 16 choices. 

Not so good.

Between retiring baby boomers and uninterested youth, age clearly is taking its toll on U.S. manufacturing skills. There's growing evidence, however, that manufacturers have begun identifying age as a potential solution to manufacturing's talent shortage as well. 

Indeed, changing the negative perception of manufacturing among youth and their parents has become an integral component of closing the skills gap for a growing number of manufacturers. Companies including Air Products, Alcoa (IW 500/48) and Michelin (IW 1000/160) are partnering or otherwise working with educational institutions at all stages of student development to help set curriculum and raise manufacturing's profile.