Minding the Gap: Age-Old Problems Require New Solutions

While tighter labor markets are affecting all industries, manufacturing has some unique obstacles to overcome around a persistent talent shortage. The ongoing shortage across the manufacturing sector, particularly for specialized, high-end trade skills, is exerting extra pressure on both the sector and the broader economy. In fact, a 2021 study co-sponsored by the Manufacturing Institute predicts that more than two million manufacturing jobs will go unfulfilled by 2030, potentially costing the US economy $1 trillion in GDP.

Many attempts have been made to better understand why the pool of available talent is so thin in certain areas of manufacturing, particularly in the service and maintenance areas. While there are doubtless many reasons, we believe an underappreciated one involves a generational “blip” if you will, and that businesses would be wise to address these realities head-on and work to develop creative solutions.

Looking Under the Hood

Although hiring in some manufacturing areas has improved, there is still a glaring generational gap among skilled service and maintenance technicians, which are integral to any successful operation. Over time, these types of positions have experienced less turnover than other departments across manufacturing organizations. While this is good, a downside is that older workers have not always kept up with the skills required in a quickly-evolving manufacturing sector.

The crux of the issue: Despite the manufacturing industry increasing its use of automation over the past two decades, it still has a very high concentration of senior service and maintenance techs who have been in their positions for 20 to 30 years. These workers have narrower skill sets in part because so many of these service and maintenance jobs have not been replenished with new talent at the same pace other areas have, thus preventing natural knowledge-sharing and skills development from happening organically.

Bachelor’s Degrees Over Hammers

Why hasn’t there been a continual restocking? Service and maintenance workers within the manufacturing industry skew older for two main reasons. First, and most obviously, high-end, skilled labor pays better, hence the longer tenures. But second – and we feel this is often overlooked – is that there was a lengthy period in the 1980s to mid-1990s when younger people in society were being culturally discouraged from going into any type of trade-related vocation.

The more than 140 million members of both Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) and Generation Y (1981 to 1996) veered from previous norms, with more people than in any prior generation opting to go to college than go into the trades. College degrees were widely regarded during this time as the best path to a successful career. Jobs in manufacturing or specific trades, on the other hand, were perceived to be laborious and limited in long-term earning power. As a result, it is quite common today for manufacturing organizations to have maintenance technicians that are either under 30 or over 60-years old, with few in between.

Now What? Upskilling

This gap is slowly improving but it will take time, commitment, and creativity from manufacturers to recognize how this issue affects them and how they can close their own internal generational gaps. Upskilling has become an increasingly popular business strategy during these past few years as employers continue to provide longer-tenured staff members with new opportunities to learn additional skills and deepen their knowledge, particularly around new and emerging technologies. Although many point to rapidly evolving technologies as a big driver of job losses, it is actually quite the contrary – these innovative technologies are creating all kinds of new opportunities for people with the right skills, which is where upskilling comes in.

There are different ways to think about how upskilling can help you, but a good approach would involve a blend of looking internally to identify employees that would be ideal upskilling candidates and looking externally for any opportunities to snag great talent. Think of how digital the world and business have become. Digital dexterity is now a standard business requirement, and there are many different methods for training and upskilling staff. Specialized training, for example, can include virtual and online courses, as well as mentoring and job shadowing. While upskilling can be expensive, the return on investment can more than offset any costs by increasing employee engagement, maximizing productivity and retention, and boosting customer satisfaction.

As for external solutions, astute businesses can often flip a tough labor market in their favor by being observant and opportunistic. For example, we know mass layoffs will be inevitable in a prolonged downturn and that there will be a supply of new, skilled talent that will suddenly become available as a result. It’s a good strategy to pay close attention to the events and conditions around you to see if any newly available talent matches your firm’s needs. 

We cannot reverse the degree over trades mindset that was entrenched in the 1980s and 1990s, but manufacturers can come up with new ways to help bridge this generational gap. Foresight, planning, flexibility, and training are all needed now more than ever to keep employees interested and engaged, and able to make use of the latest technologies available and being used by manufacturers today.