Despite US manufacturing activity hitting a 37-year-high this spring, half a million factory jobs remain unfilled.
The talent gap, which has plagued goods producers for over a decade, continues to hold back not only the industry’s growth, but our entire economy’s: A recent report suggested it could shortchange GDP by up to $1 trillion by 2030. In Northeast Ohio, it’s estimated that simply filling the 8,000 manufacturing jobs now open would boost the region’s economy by $5 billion annually.
Unwarranted fears that automatons will take our jobs, a misperception of factories as dark and dangerous, memories of mass layoffs in the ‘70s and ‘80s—all of this obscures the truth, which is that advanced manufacturing jobs offer a world of opportunity in everything from robotics to blockchain to artificial intelligence, and an average salary of more than $75,000 a year.
So what’s stopping manufacturing decision-makers from fixing the talent gap and seizing all this potential at the very moment we need to the most?
Our new blueprint for manufacturing in Northeast Ohio offers solutions that stakeholders nationwide can learn from—around driving awareness and education, building a more diverse workforce, innovating training and making manufacturing companies better places to work. The key, though, is to see these elements as part of a holistic approach, one that requires radical collaboration among manufacturers, state and local government, academia, community leaders, nonprofits, students and workers. The institutional support, infrastructure and diversity of perspective that goes into these sorts of partnerships are exactly what we need to nurture the next generation of manufacturing talent.
In what follows, we’ll discuss three calls-to-action and examples of the types of sector partnerships that can put them into practice. It’s our hope that these success stories can serve as a model for the industry moving forward.
We Need to Attract New—and Diverse—Talent
According to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, manufacturing is dead last among career industry choices for 18- to 24-year-old Americans. In Northeast Ohio, its payrolls are also 83% white and 74% male. To close the talent gap, industry leaders will need to do a better job of raising awareness about career opportunities, whether that’s through factory visits, camps, technology showcases or other immersive experiences.
But we’ll also need to do so in a way that makes our factories as diverse as our communities—and that means creating innovative on-ramps for veterans, people with disabilities, people in disadvantaged communities, people of color and the underemployed.
This is where radical collaboration between companies, educational institutions, communities and nonprofit organizations comes in.
Take Deonia Duncan, who, at 16, was working a “dead-end job” at a local pizza shop. In 10th grade, her principal suggested she apply for MAGNET’s Early College, Early Career (ECEC) program, which invites inner-city high school students to take college courses in manufacturing and do paid internships at local manufacturers, opening up employer-sponsored careers and college education opportunities. After Duncan completed a paid internship at Lincoln Electric, the largest welding company in the world, she was hired full time in 2019. Since then, she’s been promoted and also trains incoming ECEC participants.
Eddie Taylor has a different story, with a similar outcome. After serving 13 years in federal prison, he “needed a fresh start.” That came when someone suggested the ACCESS to Manufacturing Careers Program. Taylor was one of 12 participants who made up 2020’s inaugural class of justice-served individuals seeking to reenter the workforce. Since that first class, 75% of graduates have secured jobs — including Taylor, who was hired as a material handler at Elsons International. There’s been zero recidivism.
Another sector partnership in the Youngstown area, the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition (MVMC), recently engaged the National Center for Urban Solutions and United Returning Citizens to conduct grassroots outreach, going out into the community—oftentimes door-to-door—to talk about manufacturing jobs and recruit into its WorkAdvance program. Just weeks in, this new partnership is already yielding results, attracting 10 new participants, many of whom said they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of a manufacturing career.
For its part, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association (OMA) has seeded a number of sector partnerships like this throughout Ohio, bringing together stakeholders from across the state and giving everyone who needs to be involved in making systemic changes a seat at the table. Central to these partnerships’ success is the fact that they’re led by the manufacturers who know the industry best.
We Need to Create Innovative Training So Manufacturers Can Grow Their Own Talent
Industry-led sector partnerships can help organizations innovate training, too. Community colleges have a long history of forming cutting-edge partnerships with manufacturers to provide innovative, flexible, and affordable training—training that businesses, looking to close the skills gap, need more than ever.
Cuyahoga Community College’s Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence, for instance, brings its mobile training unit in a 53-foot-long trailer right to the doorsteps of local companies and schools. MVMC, meanwhile, recently worked with the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center to develop an earn and learn robotics training program that has upskilled 31 employees across five companies – with another 20 planned this fall.
German-style apprenticeship programs — for those who have received training beyond a high school diploma but have not attained a four-year degree — offer another training solution. And while in-house programs are effective, collaboration can help here, too. A company might have a handful of apprentices pursuing an educational certificate, but not enough to hire an instructor or invest in costly equipment. That’s why pooling resources and curriculums is so important, and why investing in formal, state-approved apprenticeship programs in conjunction with colleges matters.
We Need to Celebrate Manufacturing as a Great Place to Work
The vast majority of Americans say they won’t encourage their children to pursue manufacturing careers because most don’t think these jobs are interesting, rewarding, clean, safe, stable, or secure. Manufacturing leaders need to change that perception.
It starts by encouraging companies to build winning workplace cultures and pioneer ways to be great employers. In-house programs that offer paid schooling, intrapreneurship opportunities, and clear career paths are just a few options. Those are all on offer at Automation Tool & Die in Valley City, Ohio. As one new employee told us, “Before this, I would come home unhappy. [Now] I have a clear path for advancement and pay scale. I enjoy the machining, the CAD — who knows, I might even decide to become an engineer. Depends on what I fall in love with.”
Forums and workshops — hosted by nonprofits, industry associations, workforce development agencies, and/or community organizations — that teach and share workplace culture best practices can help, too.
But it’s also a matter of showing the next generation of manufacturing workers how exciting the job can be, whether it’s university partnerships that demonstrate how the field is ripe for cutting-edge research, or local manufacturers and community colleges raising awareness about the lucrative high-tech careers that manufacturing can provide.
Randy Bennett, co-owner of ATD, invites hundreds of students and teachers to his factory every year. He sees planting these seeds as part of an ongoing virtuous cycle from one generation to the next, which is exactly what we need to close the talent gap (and keep it closed).
“That’s the meaning of the work,” Bennet said. “That’s the fuel. Manufacturing is tough and there are a lot of challenges. But on the people side, when you can do something to help someone establish a career path for their entire life, it gives back what was given so easily to me. That’s a meaningful way to pay it forward.”
Ethan Karp is president and CEO of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network. Jessica Borza is executive director of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition.