What Will the New Manufacturing Workforce Look Like?

by: Andrew L. Shakely, PE, LEED AP BD+C | NuTec Design Associates, Inc., President

There is a promising trend of manufacturing growing again in the United States. This includes new manufacturers with start-up technologies, reshoring of manufacturing that was previously sent overseas, and even foreign companies from Asia and Europe realizing that manufacturing in the U.S. is good for the bottom line. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that manufacturers have been adding jobs since 2010 after a decade in decline. In March of this year, there were a reported 264,000 job openings in manufacturing. This is good news for the many workers that lost their jobs to downsizing from offshoring and The Great Recession. However, it is not a cure-all to these workers, as many will need to learn new skills to be part of the evolving U.S. manufacturing industry.

New manufacturing facilities are taking full advantage of automation and robotics to not only improve productivity, but also improve quality. Robots are capable of repeating tasks over and over and in the exact same way. Part quality and consistency is improved, resulting in lower rejects and rework. Productivity is enhanced by equipment that can run continually without need for restroom or lunch breaks. What used to be done by skilled craftsman, using their experience to know when the part was right, is now done by highly automated machines with multiple physical and optical sensors calibrated for extreme accuracy.

Working successfully on a manufacturing floor is no longer based on physical ability and mechanical aptitude. Today’s manufacturer’s need employees with skills to operate, program, and perform technical troubleshooting of complex machines. Knowledge of computer code, critical thinking, and problem-solving are now the valuable skills employers need, but are currently in short supply in the workforce.

Governments and employers are taking steps to address this need with new emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum in schools and partnerships with community colleges to provide on-site job training. Programs in development aim to reintroduce young students, as early as elementary school, to what manufacturing means today. The hope is that some of the stigmatism that has attached itself to manufacturing’s image can be replaced with the new reality that manufacturing is a now high tech career choice. As these programs take hold over time, employers believe that having the right work will allow them to increase production and productivity. This in turn will allow the growth of U.S. manufacturing to continue, which in the end is good for everyone.