People are shying away from factory work because they don’t realize what a great career opportunity it offers.
So says Ethan Karp. He is president and chief executive officer of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), an organization dedicating to drumming up manufacturing jobs for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.
MAGNET recently joined with more than 100 other advocates of the industrial sector to launch a Blueprint for Manufacturing. It serves double duty as a promotional vehicle for regional industrial development and an argument that modern manufacturing jobs are, in the group’s words, “high-tech, safe, well-paying and intellectually challenging.”
MAGNET also represents a response to the current employment gap in manufacturing. Simply put, there aren’t enough people willing to join the assembly line, at a time when demand for manufactured product is soaring.
A recent industry survey by MAGNET reveals what Karp describes as a crisis that’s threatening to impact the domestic manufacturing sector for the next 10 years. Forty percent of respondents said the lack of adequate talent has “significantly impeded their growth.” Another 30% percent called it “a concern.”
That, says Karp, is “a huge jump” from previous years. “Orders are going unfilled, GDP is being unmade, and people are not getting opportunities for good-paying manufacturing jobs. It’s a travesty from the business and community perspective.”
Why are things so bad, amidst talk of a resurgence in U.S. domestic manufacturing? The reasons, says Karp, are several. One is a surge in consumer demand, coming off the deep recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. A second is the continuation of unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs or were laid off during the pandemic. A third is the withdrawal of large numbers of women from the workforce. And a fourth — perhaps the most serious obstacle to overcome — is the industry’s long-standing image problem.
The lack of women on the production line is due to many who have remained at home to perform childcare duties, a lingering effect of the lockdowns and sheltering in place during the height of the pandemic. (Whether the “height” has actually passed remains to be seen, of course.) Women typically make up 25% to 35% of the manufacturing workforce, Karp says.
Most emergency unemployment checks are due to run out after Labor Day, so that supposed drag on the labor pool will no longer be an issue. But even when unemployment levels were spiking, thousands of manufacturing positions were going unfilled, says Karp. And that points to a dilemma that has its roots in the first industrial age: factories aren’t seen as attractive places in which to work.
When many people think of factories today, they envision ugly buildings at the edge of cities, dark and dirty on the inside, churning out endless copies of cars, electronics products, or other types of consumer goods. Karp says that image dates back to the age of the Model T, and is no longer relevant to manufacturing.
The factory of today, he argues, is likely to be clean, efficient and requiring much less physical labor than in years past, due to a heavy reliance on robots and other forms of automation for the execution of dull and repetitive tasks. What’s more, many of the human jobs require a far higher level of technological knowledge and skill.
That said, some aspects of modern manufacturing remain problematic. Chief among them is pay: wages tend to be lower than in the past, with labor unions either weakened or non-existent. And the work can be demanding, with long hours and strict attendance policies.
From the worker’s standpoint, wages and benefits are likely to be the chief consideration. Karp acknowledges that some of the manufacturers who are most vocal about needing workers are also the lowest-paying. The industry needs to raise wages at the lowest levels to compete with alternative employers such as Amazon.com, which has an insatiable need for warehouse workers at its giant fulfillment centers.
Manufacturing wages are beginning to rise, a sign that industry is reacting to the classic dynamic between supply and demand. Whether the increases are sufficient to change the image of factory work for the better is uncertain, and higher wages could trigger a new cycle of inflation that further diminishes consumers’ pocketbooks, while choking off long-term economic growth. Finally, there’s the question of whether higher domestic production costs will derail efforts to bring manufacturing back from Asia to the U.S.
Nevertheless, the manufacturing sector must do more to convince reluctant workers that it’s an attractive place to build a career. Karp says the effort needs to extend throughout communities and the educational system, in order to spark interest in manufacturing and provide the training that’s necessary to performing modern factory work. He says it’s important to promote both a college education and early career opportunities in manufacturing. MAGNET has already undertaken such an effort on a small scale, launching an early training program involving 100 students, 10 schools and 10 private companies. Do
Proponents of the idea need much more participation from the private sector. “When all companies do it, it will be an honor to get into one of those programs,” says Karp. “It’s coming from a place of support from your community, and the school telling that you need to continue along this path, because it’s great for your future.”
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