Talent shortages. Skills gaps. A rapidly aging workforce. All it takes is a quick glance at the challenges facing today’s manufacturing employers to understand why the industry as a whole has recently been averaging something like 500,000 unfilled jobs at any given moment.

But some of those challenges, especially around recruitment, also come with a bit of silver lining. With that in mind, let’s dig into the recruitment outlook for manufacturing employers right now, calling attention not only to challenges but what you can do to overcome them.


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the image problem is the age problem

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. manufacturing workforce is now over the age of 55, and it stands to reason that many of them are likely contemplating retirement in the foreseeable future. Yet even as the industry continues to expand at a rapid clip, adding 30,000 jobs or more in recent months, younger employees aren’t exactly flocking to the field. And that has a lot to do with a lingering image problem.

Indeed, negative perceptions, especially among younger workers, continue to be a major contributing factor in the shortage of available talent for manufacturing employers. In fact, nearly half — 45 percent — of younger job seekers say they hold negative perceptions of the manufacturing industry.

If that sounds like a lot, what’s perhaps even more surprising is that this phenomenon isn’t new. Not even remotely.

As Seema Pajula, vice chairman and U.S. industries and insights leader for Deloitte, remarked, “If we don’t fix this image problem, we are really going to have issues in the future” — and that was four years ago.

So why the ongoing perception challenge? And what can manufacturers do to fix it?

First, basic issues around diversity, inclusion and representation badly need to be addressed. According to one study from the World Economic Forum, for example, women today make up only around 20 percent of the global manufacturing and production workforce. Effectively half of the workforce, in other words, may be alienated by the reality that manufacturing remains a significantly male-dominated space. Outreach initiatives and messaging, as well as internal policy changes, designed to welcome women and other underrepresented groups should be a priority.

Second, creating clearer, externally visible career pathways within the industry would go a long way toward changing perceptions and attracting younger workers. The majority of respondents in one survey, for example, said they associated manufacturing employment with limited career prospects. And yet the same survey showed that four out of five might still be interested in those jobs — that is, if the roles came with more training opportunities and better-defined career paths.

Chalk that up as an actionable next step for manufacturing employers across the board.

One final, and far easier, strategy for connecting with younger employees: Why not develop partnerships with educational institutions and technical training centers in order to proactively build the workforce of the future? This one should be a no-brainer. Yet it’s something that fewer than half of manufacturing employers (41%) have actually done to date.

In any event, for manufacturing employers, now is clearly the time to take action. In order to recruit the next generation of skilled manufacturing talent, perceptions of the industry as a whole need to change for the better.

Smiling woman working on a production site.
Smiling woman working on a production site.

new urgency around upskilling and reskilling

How daunting is the current skills gap in manufacturing? It’s pretty bad — and if you don’t think so, just ask the workers. All told, 29 percent of manufacturing workers think their skill set is already redundant or will be in the next couple of years, and another 38 percent think this will be the case in the next four or five years.

In this context, upskilling and reskilling the manufacturing workforce is more important than ever. It’s the only viable long-term solution in terms of actually overcoming and reversing the current skills gap in manufacturing.

Sadly, however, too few manufacturing employers appear to be on board. Consider the following disconnect from one survey, for example:

  • Nearly half of manufacturing companies are now suffering annual turnover rates of 20 percent or higher.
  • Despite this, only approximately one in three are allocating any budget to employee development initiatives.

These two things are clearly linked, and more manufacturing employers should recognize the ways in which lack of access to reskilling, upskilling and other development opportunities is contributing directly to negative human capital outcomes.

As automation and other advanced technologies gain a greater foothold in manufacturing and production environments, the need for employees with new, and increasingly digital, skill sets is going to be more pronounced than ever. Just ask the 73 percent of manufacturers who are currently investing in tools and tech to enable a larger share of their workforce to work remotely. In so doing, of course, they’ll find themselves thrust into competition for talent with employers from virtually every other sector. It’s a future vision in which the current talent shortage actually looks worse, not better.

For manufacturing employers, redoubling their investment in upskilling and reskilling initiatives may be the only way to prevent that forecast from becoming a reality.

next steps

Ready to combat the recruitment and hiring challenges we’ve touched on for manufacturers across the board — and to start capitalizing on new opportunities?

Taking purposeful actions, starting with the recommendations in this article, will certainly help move the needle. By the same token, however, if you need to overcome skills gaps in the near term, or successfully hire for in-demand roles despite an ongoing talent shortage, leveraging the capabilities of a strategic partner may be the best path forward. Get in touch with Randstad to learn how we can contribute value — or check out our comprehensive guide to how manufacturers can tackle these and other challenges.

about the author
Doug Hammond
Doug Hammond

Doug Hammond

president, operational talent solutions (ots)

As President, Operational Talent Solutions (OTS), Doug is responsible for providing strategic direction and leading operational excellence. Doug began his tenure with Randstad as a Regional Vice President in 2013 where he quickly developed a reputation for innovation and driving results. He holds an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and has a track record of providing vision and clarity, while driving organizational change.