The annual survey of more than 1,200 American manufacturers paints a picture of an industry that is thriving and reinventing itself every day, but is in danger of slowing down if it doesn't replenish its talent pool. Most of these respondents are from small and mid-sized manufacturing companies, representative of their sector. Currently, the future is bright for these companies: More than half (55 percent) grew in 2012, and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) expect to grow this year. They credit their people, brands, technology and innovation as the assets that are helping them to compete. In fact, nearly seven out of 10 (67 percent) will introduce new or innovative products/services this year.
But a closer look at the findings reveals a "disconnect" between the growth of these manufacturers, and their lack of urgency when it comes to bringing in fresh talent to carry them forward. The survey respondents mirror today's manufacturing workforce, which is heavily populated by employees who are 45 and older. With Generation Y projected to make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, manufacturers need a collective "succession plan" to maintain their momentum. Yet, eight out of 10 respondents report that this generation represents a small fraction of their employee base, and most don't see that changing soon. In short, despite more opportunity ahead, manufacturing's biological clock is silently ticking away.
"As a foundation of our economy, the manufacturing sector remains vibrant, but cracks are coming to the surface. Changes in the workforce demographics and old attitudes about manufacturing as a career threaten the industry's expansion. It's time for those who love American manufacturing to double their efforts to engage the next generation," said Eileen Markowitz, president, ThomasNet.
Technology Improving Opportunities
From the back office to the factory floor, technologies are making manufacturing a hotbed of innovation, improving companies' operations, and increasing their growth. For example, manufacturers are:
"¢ Boosting productivity with more advanced CAD (computer-aided design) software, CNC (computer numerical control) equipment, and cloud computing.
"¢ Making custom products through additive manufacturing.
"¢ Relying on "visual boards" for top-line views of their plants.
"¢ Using smartphones and tablets to monitor inventory for stocking and pricing.
Companies are also giving special attention to technology to improve sales, and more than half (62 percent) say their websites are their most effective business-building tactic. "Our company is doing exceptionally well, and with our website as our primary marketing tool, we have doubled our online sales," said Karen Norheim, vice president of marketing and information technology with American Crane and Equipment Corporation in greater Philadelphia.
Negative Perceptions Deter New Generations
The opportunity to harness these technologies, and to create and innovate, is what makes manufacturing so rewarding, according to the respondents. They believe that the positive attributes of manufacturing are lost to the public at large - including the satisfaction of developing new products, the environment of change, pride in "Made in America" quality, and the ability to improve people's lives around the globe. Moreover, three out of four respondents (73 percent) believe that negative perceptions about manufacturing careers are deterring young people from joining forces with them.
Calling on High Schools to Do More
Many manufacturers have developed creative partnerships with schools to engage their "best and brightest," and they consider educators the ray of hope for their future. They are calling on high schools to offer more skills training, and to increase their emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They hope their potential successors will see, as one respondent says, that manufacturing is "a job that changes every day, but can last a lifetime."
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