Filling Manufacturing Jobs: How to Match Skills to Demand

You’ve probably heard by now that automation and off-shoring are responsible for the decline in manufacturing jobs in America. But in reality, manufacturing jobs are still a major contributor to the U.S. economy, and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Manufacturing jobs are defined as the creation of products from components or raw materials. They range from bakers to refrigerator makers. Pretty much everything that is made into a good from something else is considered a manufactured product.

Manufacturing employment, which peaked at 19 million in the 1980s, now stands at around 12.2 million. At the same time, the U.S. population is growing. You’d think that would mean the role of manufacturing jobs is decreasing as a percentage of the economy. But while manufacturing jobs may represent only 9 percent of the U.S. workforce, they account for 18.2 percent of global goods, and contributed $2.17 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2015. They provide good salaries, with workers earning on average more than $79,000 in pay and benefits.

So what’s the issue? Why is there so much talk about the loss of manufacturing jobs?

The reality is that 322,000 manufacturing jobs are available and ready to be filled right now.  The National Association of Manufacturers predicts that over the next decade, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created, but 2 million of them will go unfilled.

The types of manufacturing jobs have changed over time, and have become much more sophisticated. Manufacturing is not just about widget production and Tupperware. Manufacturing involves biotechnology, carbon fibers, and nanotechnology, among other advanced industries.

Upgrading people’s skills is a definite necessity, but re-training is not as easy as just teaching workers how to fix robots. The real issue, according to economist Aparna Mathur, is recasting manufacturing as a desirable profession.

A survey on the Public Perception of Manufacturing shows that while most Americans perceive manufacturing as the backbone of a strong domestic economy, few parents want their children to work in this industry, and manufacturing is the last career choice for people between the ages of 19 and 33.

All of this suggests that to make manufacturing great again, we need a two-pronged approach. We must encourage workers to upgrade their skills with training in math, science and computing. For younger workers, paid apprenticeships with companies could produce big results. But aside from the skills gap, we also need to tackle the “image-gap”—the unwillingness of some workers to take up these jobs because of their inherent bias against working in jobs that they perceive as similar to the factory jobs of the past.

Bringing jobs back from overseas makes for a promising campaign pledge. But filling domestic jobs through skill upgradation and changing the image of manufacturing to make it a more appealing career choice can be a more practical and achievable jobs policy.

In essence, the four-year college may not be the answer to good careers for many young people. Manufacturing jobs require more than just studying the philosophers and psychology, they require learning skills that are not traditionally taught in liberal arts studies. And with college costs spiraling out of control, that alone could make a career in manufacturing a more attractive pursuit, if approached with the right attitude.