A Look at the Shortage of Manufacturing Workers

A solid base of manufacturing is critical for us to maintain our quality of life and that base can’t survive without talented people entering the trade.

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Fewer and fewer people are aspiring to hands-on trades in the manufacturing industry. Is it approaching a crisis situation or is it a rationalization that is good for the industry and will serve to drive up shop rates and individual wages, which in turn will attract people to the profession?

My experience was different. I skipped college and opted for trade school. Actually, I did go to college for three weeks thinking I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. But I learned very quickly that college wasn’t for me and decided to change course. One of the classes I had been taking for the three weeks was a basic manufacturing techniques class that involved machining a few simple parts. Admittedly, I didn’t know what a machine shop was or what a machinist did prior to taking the course. I remember thinking to myself, “People actually get paid to do this?” It sounded like a great career option for me. So, I un-enrolled in college (sounds much better than “dropped out”) and drove over to the local trade school and enrolled in the machine shop certification program.

Prior to graduation, employers were lined up offering jobs to everyone in the course. I went to work for a die/mold shop serving the automotive industry and got the most amazing on-the-job education that combined my love of math, geometry and computers to make tangible things. For me, it was very rewarding.

It amazes me how few people know anything about manufacturing; even though our world revolves around it. I want to tell everyone “look around you, everything you use was manufactured.” Manufacturing is the largest industry in the world and no other industry exists without the manufactured products that enable it.

Had it not been for stumbling into that class when I dipped my toe into the college water, I am sure I would have missed out on a wonderful career. And there are many young people today that are missing out on a great career option because either they just don’t know how unique and rewarding a manufacturing career can be.

All of the kids that are spending their days gaming on Xbox or PlayStation will probably be great at using a CAM system to produce complex toolpaths and run CNC machines. It’s kind of like the ultimate video game—you have to make a cutter run around a piece of 3-D geometry following all the rules related to part orientation. You must choose the right cutter, depth-of-cut and avoid the hold down clamps. Then the final challenge is to cut the part and have it pass the first article inspection. How can kids not be all over that?

One question lingers and that is salary. The skills needed may not match up with the pay provided. Being a good machinist involves being skillful in math, geometry, computers and one must have mechanical aptitude. With all the skills required, why do auto mechanics, plumbers and electricians make more money according to employee compensation surveys?

Perhaps the relatively low pay is the reason for the shortage of people interested in manufacturing careers. Or is it that people just aren’t aware of what being a machinist means today? There are two sides to the argument. Some feel that if more people went into the trade it would serve to further erode the wages due to increased competition for the jobs. While others argue that if the pay were better and the people with the right skills flocked to the trade, productivity and innovation would skyrocket—allowing companies to generate record profits. I certainly have heard more questions than answers, but I know for sure that a solid base of manufacturing is critical for us to maintain our quality of life and that base can’t sustain itself without talented people entering the trade.

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