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Fixing the Manufacturing Perception Problem in the U.S.

The manufacturing industry serves as the backbone of the U.S. economy and the economies of other developed countries throughout the world. While automation and globalization have made a profound impact on the manufacturing job market and raw output, there is — and will continue to be — a healthy demand for domestic American jobs. Yet, as baby boomers retire through the next decade, questions linger regarding who will fill the vacant positions left behind by older generations. The fears of what would amount to a remarkable labor shortage are not unfounded and arise from one troubling, obvious trend — negative industry perception.

A 2016 study commissioned by Proto Labs reveals that 71 percent of Americans don’t think manufacturing jobs — such as steel fabricators — are “high-tech,” while 33 percent don’t believe manufacturing jobs pay well. These misconceptions are sabotaging incentives for young workers to pursue careers in manufacturing. These statistics unfortunately reveal a disturbing truth. The greatest short-term threat to the manufacturing industry won’t be damaging protectionist policies or foreign competition, it will be a labor shortage totaling in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of potential young workers.

Managing a supply chain and hiring new talent are just two of the 7 primary manufacturing struggles.

Debunking Misconceptions

Mike Rowe, the former host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” and “Someone’s Gotta Do it,” has some impassioned takes on the public perception of manufacturing. He dislikes the idea of ranking careers, or even colleges, because such lists establish unwarranted biases.

“I know for a fact that a great education can be found at many affordable schools that will never appear on someone else’s list,” Rowe wrote in an op-ed for Media Planet. “Likewise, I’m personally convinced that career contentment has nothing to do with someone else’s perception of a ‘good job.’” 

One of the primary points that Rowe asserts is that, of the roughly 3 million jobs that are currently available, most aren’t reliant on a four-year degree, but training. Many of these jobs, he says, pay well and can ratchet up to six figures quite quickly. Yet, he laments, none of the trade schools that allow for hands-on experience in the industry are listed in the “Top 100 Colleges in America” list. He recalls his experience, saying the most influential teacher he ever had was an English teacher at a local community college.

His grievances against modern perceptions of manufacturing are even more pointed in an interview with FF Journal, a magazine dedicated to custom metal fabrication and forming technologies.

“There is a caste system in our society that pits one profession against another,” Rowe wrote. “Children are encouraged to excel in their studies to ensure admission into a respectable four-year college. What’s often lost in this approach is that pursuing a degree from such institutions may not meet the needs of every student, yet vocational education in the trades is portrayed as a less-than-deal option.”

In the interview, Rowe makes the point that a balanced education is still obtainable regardless of a person’s career pursuit. One of the primary issues that feeds misconceptions is the constant classification of “white-collar work” and “blue-collar work,” “good education” and “bad education,” “good jobs” and “bad jobs.” Rowe insists that vocational training and a well-rounded curriculum are not mutually exclusive, but that mixing practical skills with the arts is a necessity.

“Marco Rubio was wrong when he said we need more welders and fewer philosophers,” Rowe said.

“You can’t value one job more than the other. We need balance — we can have both a welder who can quote Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and a philosopher who can weld.” 

Attracting Millennials to the Manufacturing World

Starting a Career In Custom Metal FabricationManufacturers across the country are taking innovative steps to attract Generation Y. Yet, they face a rough road ahead as Millennials have ranked the manufacturing industry seventh in interest level (with technology taking the lead), according to a study by Deloitte. 

Understanding the importance of technology integration in manufacturing, companies are trying to market manufacturing as an extension of high-tech industry. According to The Wall Street Journal, companies are using mobile devices, video and even virtual reality to recruit new talent. In 2014, USG’s application volume grew 26 percent just by beginning to accept applications through mobile phones. Manufacturers are also starting to launch videos to give Millennials a sense of what a company does and what they can expect to do once they arrive. For USG, this meant a 50 percent increase in submitting a job application after viewing a listing.

Virtual reality is quickly gaining stream in manufacturing, and even allows welders to train their welds before applying their learned skills in a real environment. Not only is this a more cost-effective way to train workers, but it’s this kind of technology that will ultimately have staying power when recruiting the next generation of workers to the field. Welding is one of the most skill-intensive operations for metal fabricators, so the ability to engrain muscle memory, technique and philosophy in new ways is welcomed for recruitment and on-the-job employee development.

Nevertheless, Millennials maintain their doubts and see job security as one of the primary reasons to avoid a career in manufacturing or custom metal fabrication. Though several jobs are certain to open, Millennials are aware of trends in automation that will replace certain jobs with machines in the long run. Explaining which jobs are likely to stick around through the wave of automation, or even those jobs which don’t exist yet, is one of manufacturing’s most difficult future challenges.

The Road Ahead in Custom Metal Fabrication and Manufacturing

According to Deloitte, Americans recognize the value of the manufacturing industry, but show uncertainty as to the industry’s future. 82 percent of Americans believe the U.S should invest in the manufacturing industry, but job security and stability was cited as one of the primary reasons younger people are not looking to pursue full-fledged careers in manufacturing. Fortunately, those with higher familiarity with manufacturing ranked the industry third (out of seven) in career appeal, though Gen Y still ranks the industry last overall in this category. 

Outlook for Manufacturing and Custom Metal Fabrication

By 2025, there will be roughly 2.7 million baby boomer retirements, but only 1.4 million of those jobs are expected to be filled.

This will leave around 2 million unfilled jobs in the industry due to the lack of skilled labor ready and willing to take those jobs. This issue derives, ultimately, from negative perceptions and the lack of infrastructure in the U.S. education system for giving students the avenues for experience they need to get training in the field. Fears about the future of the U.S. economy also deter otherwise able employees from joining the ranks.

Manufacturers, like steel fabricators, must be diligent in how they proceed with the next generation of workers. They also must be advocates of not only internal training programs and internships, but external development programs that inform potential talent of manufacturing careers before they complete their secondary education. This will require collective advocacy on the part of manufacturers in all agencies to work with organizations, both public and private, to develop an educational environment where modern manufacturing can thrive.

Unfortunately, by the time manufacturers establish the framework to educate the next generation about high-potential careers in manufacturing, the labor shortage wave will already have arrived. What manufacturers must hope, then, is that a generation already adept at learning new skills on the fly (namely technology) can also quickly adapt to achieve the skills necessary to succeed in manufacturing. The future of the U.S. manufacturing economy depends on it.

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