The manufacturing industry has been facing a labor shortage for decades. As baby boomers retire, companies are struggling to replace their expertise and experience, plus Western countries have shrinking populations with fewer people entering the workforce every year.

But the last couple of years exacerbated the issue in a number of ways. The Great Resignation drained the sector of experienced workers faster than anyone expected; the acceleration of digital transformation sharpened the need for digital talent; and changes in employee demands and attitudes sped up drastically. 

As a result, manufacturing companies are having severe trouble both with recruiting entry-level talent, and in attracting and retaining skilled talent. Last year, Deloitte predicted that 2.1 million skilled jobs would go unfilled by 2030. The shortage of skilled workers is a top concern for manufacturers in 2022, ahead of worries about supply chain, and 59% of companies said that skilled talent is the main challenge holding them back from adopting smart manufacturing solutions.

The good news is that there are strategies plants can take to build the workforce they need.

Collect knowledge from retiring experts

Millennials may have the digital skills needed to enable Industry 4.0, but they often lack manufacturing knowledge and plant insights. To prevent detrimental knowledge gaps, managers need to scramble to retain and institutionalize the knowledge sets of retirees. 

The process manufacturing industry feels the pain particularly acutely, being a relatively traditional sector with a high percentage of baby-boomer employees. While some companies have attempted to incentivize older people to continue working, there’s no way to stop the clock and keep them in the workplace indefinitely. 

One technology that can help is SAM GUARD, since our patented modeling technology is designed to synthesize the best of AI (artificial intelligence) and HI (human intelligence) by facilitating the transfer of knowledge from individual employees to the company as a whole. That means that anyone coming in, at any age and with any skill set, can access knowledge sets left behind by retirees.

Meet new employee expectations

This approach also makes it easier for corporations to support the expectations of the post-covid workforce. The rise of the gig economy and disenchantment with committing to a “job for life” predates the pandemic, but like so many trends, it was also accelerated by it. 

Today’s workers demand a better work-life balance, including flexible working hours and the ability to work from home at least part of the week, but 43% of manufacturing workers believe that this is lacking in their sector. 

Manufacturers are competing for entry-level workers with employers like Amazon and UPS, which offer higher starting salaries and are appealing as short-term jobs. Unless your company can keep raising the compensation bar, you need to be able to highlight better working conditions and more opportunities for advancement and career development, which the likes of Amazon cannot match. 

A knowledge base that everyone can tap into, no matter where they are located, helps make that possible, as does adoption of advanced technologies. By detecting potential issues while they are still minor, predictive maintenance and predictive monitoring solutions like Precognize’s SAM GUARD allow the organization to schedule repair work when it’s more convenient for employees, supporting flexible working. Other new tools like digital twins allow a surprising amount of engineer work to be conducted remotely. 

Rebrand manufacturing to appeal to younger workers

Process manufacturing companies trying to hire entry-level talent have to overcome a significant negative perception of their vertical. Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, points out that many people think manufacturing is “old school” and a dead end, while tech companies are seen as innovative and exciting. 

Deloitte analysts emphasize the need for rebranding, “To attract and retain talent, manufacturers should pair strategies such as reskilling with a recasting of their employment brand. Shrinking the industry’s public perception gap by making manufacturing jobs a more desirable entry point could be critical to meeting hiring needs in 2022,” wrote Paul Wellener, US Industrial Products & Construction Leader, and Kate Hardin, Managing Director, at Deloitte. 

To Millennials and Gen Z who prioritize ESG, social justice, and equality, the image of manufacturing as polluting, old-fashioned, and non-diverse makes it extremely off-putting. Countering it requires establishing and publicizing DEI and ESG policies and initiatives, taking action to make minority employees feel comfortable and help them advance, and promoting the steps you are taking to boost sustainability. 

The position of manufacturing at the frontline of the battle for climate change can be recast as an opportunity to take a job that will have a real impact on the planet. Equally, manufacturing’s rapid digital transformation can attract workers who are excited to be involved in the cutting edge of AI, ML, augmented reality (AR) and robotics innovation. 

Invest in training and upskilling

At the same time as making manufacturing positions more appealing, companies need to proactively offer employees of all ages and experience levels the means for acquiring new skills. This is urgent, because digital transformation is moving rapidly, and companies that don’t keep up with smart manufacturing and industry 4.0 adoption will quickly lose their ability to compete. 

By “upskilling” existing employees who already have a level of plant knowledge and understanding of the company, brands can go a long way towards acquiring the digital workforce they need in a short space of time. 75% of industrial organizations identified reskilling the workforce as important or very important for their success over the next year. On top of that, companies that invest in upskilling and building internal avenues for advancement see greater employee satisfaction and improved retention rates. 

However, there’s such a significant labor shortage that these quick fixes aren’t enough on their own. There needs to be an industry-wide commitment to establishing long term training pipelines for manufacturing employees, including setting up apprenticeships and courses that begin in high school. 

Adopt technology to mitigate the labor shortage

In addition to appealing to people seeking to work in an innovative environment, advanced technologies can help fill the labor gap. Many companies are adopting smart manufacturing as a way of dealing with high labor costs, and in one study, 75% of respondents view technology as a key solution to address workforce challenges. 

For example, AI-powered tools like robotic process automation (RPA) help reduce or eliminate repetitive tasks, freeing up highly-skilled employees for higher-level decisions and tasks which can’t be automated. Cobots enhance the capabilities of human employees while also helping build a safer work environment that attracts more applicants. 

With deep insights produced using ML to gather and analyze masses of data from IIoT devices, employees can extend their creativity, speed up paths to innovation, and accelerate new product R&D. Predictive monitoring solutions make it possible to manage with a smaller staff on site, because there’s less risk that nascent issues will go overlooked. 

The workforce of the future is already here

Today’s labor problems have been several decades in the making, but manufacturing organizations have the tools to resolve them. By giving manufacturing an image makeover, expanding training and upskilling programs, and using technology to bridge the gap between retiring experts and new hires, enable innovation, and create an appealing work environment that supports a positive work-life balance, manufacturing companies can attract and retain both entry-level and skilled talent, ensuring that they are resilient, agile, and ready for whatever might come along. 

To learn more, schedule a demo