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Over the next decade, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be available, but 2.4 million of them are expected to go unfilled. Finding the skilled labor necessary to do the job (and do it well) is by far the largest challenge facing manufacturers this year, and not just because of lost production. A gap in the skilled-labor workforce could have a ripple effect that affects everything from economic demand to quality and innovation. The shortage is due to a number of factors, including economic expansion, the mass retirement of Baby Boomers, and a lack of interest in skilled labor among younger generations.

An industry of ups and downs

Numbers show a damaging loss in manufacturing jobs since 2000. Five million of them, to be exact. And while a quarter of all Americans worked in manufacturing in the 1960s, today’s percentage is more like 1 in 10. At the same time, though, recent headlines report a slow but steady increase in manufacturing jobs. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the addition of 264,000 new manufacturing jobs -- the highest number of new workers since 1988.

RELATED: U.S. Manufacturing Sector Jobs 2018-2019

The recruiting challenge

But even a million new jobs won’t help meet growth demands if they sit empty. A recent poll of manufacturing executives revealed that 80 percent of them have trouble finding and retaining the right talent, even if they offer higher-than-market wages.Kentucky Welding Institute

The same study found that potential employees were entering the manufacturing recruiting process with a 70-percent deficiency in computer and tech skills, followed closely by problem-solving, basic technical training, and math. In addition, less than half of manufacturing executives said their employees have even basic employability skills, such as attendance and timeliness. And rather than go through the arduous process of finding the right talent (it takes an average of 70 days to recruit skilled production workers), some manufacturers have chosen to just automate those positions instead.

To complicate matters, manufacturing has an image problem with the younger generations. A recent poll found that just over half of teenagers said they have “no interest” in a manufacturing career. Of those, ⅔ described working conditions as “dirty” and “dangerous” and the jobs themselves as “requiring little thinking or skill” and offering “minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.” In other research, Gen Y (ages 19-33) respondents ranked manufacturing as their least-preferred career destination. Of those polled, only a third said they would encourage their children to pursue a career in manufacturing.

Changing perceptions

State and national government organizations are working together to change the perception of manufacturing from an unskilled “dirty job” to one that’s rich in growth and innovation, and, in some cases, even lucrative. And it seems to be working. In North Carolina, for example, the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners has doubled the number of high school apprentices in the state in just two years. And across the country, a growing number of scholarships are available to not only help students go to trade schools, but earn more advanced degrees.

What manufacturers can do

While wage increases are a good start, experts suggest that individual companies and organizations can also help change the image of manufacturing in their local communities. . To that end, some companies are promoting the industry as a viable and rewarding career choice via events, conferences, and ambassador programs in partnership with community colleges and high school STEM programs.

Kentucky Welding Institute TrainingManufacturing industries might also be able to attract good candidates by showing off their innovation. Seventy-eight percent of millennials say their decision to work at a company is based partly on how innovative the company is, so demonstrating new technologies such as 3D printing or robotics can be attractive.

And it’s possible that your best talent is already working at your organization. Take a look at your current workforce -- are there potential superstars among you? If you find them, make it easy for them to transfer positions. And if they need training, consider an after-hours apprenticeship program where employees can still earn their full days’ pay while learning a new skill.

Finally, don’t let your aging Baby Boomer employees get away to retirement bliss without passing on their years of knowledge. One expert suggests engaging employees near retirement as trainers and teachers for their younger counterparts, either on the job or in the community via adjunct teaching positions.

Other resources and ways you can help:

Department of Labor Apprenticeship Program

MikeRoweWORKS Foundation

The Nuts, Bolts and Thingamagigs Foundation

Forbes’ List of the Top 25 U.S. Trade Schools

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