Navigating the Aging Workforce Tidal Wave in Manufacturing

  • June 29, 2017
  • Cisco Systems
  • Feature
Navigating the Aging Workforce Tidal Wave in Manufacturing
Navigating the Aging Workforce Tidal Wave in Manufacturing

By Steve Gansen, Senior Business Development Manager, Cisco.

When I speak with manufacturers, there are four critical areas that that always come up in the conversation:

  • Security of their facilities and workplace safety
  • Quality of products
  • Uptime of the plant
  • Aging workforce

In the age of automation, the last piece may seem the most surprising. We have seen considerable shifts in the industry as manufacturing has become more automated and advanced in its use of technology. However, workforce development is an issue that can’t necessarily be solved with just a technology solution. In most new businesses, as people leave or retire, new talent comes in. But with manufacturing there has been a real struggle with a slowing demographic and attracting new talent, causing a considerable amount of institutional knowledge to walk out the door into retirement. Manufacturers can no longer be complacent in dealing with talent.

In the United States, a consistent labor pool has been a differentiator for many years. In addition, there has been a real focus in ensuring more manufacturing jobs are retained as well as incentivizing companies to grow their work force. But, even with all those advantages, a chasm continues to build in attracting the next generation of manufacturing talent.

 Let’s take a look at the current skills gap within the manufacturing space:

  • One-third of workers in manufacturing are age 50, with the average age of a skilled manufacturing worker being 56.
  • It is estimated that there could be a shortfall of close to 875,000 trade jobs such as welders, machine operators and skilled manufacturing professionals by the year 2022.
  • Skilled trade workers are not working past their retirement age of 65, which means we will see more shortages in the near future.

(Source -

One conversation I recently had with an advanced manufacturer noted that they could lose up to 80% of their skilled manufacturing workforce in the next three to five years. That is a scary scenario for anyone to have to deal with. Furthermore, a recent report from Manpower noted that automation will actually drive an expansion of the workforce, with a reset in the skill sets needed for the digital workforce.


The Response Going Forward:

There is a three -pronged approached that will drive a path to dealing with this workforce crisis:

  • Technology will help, but it’s just as critical that we invest in the workers of tomorrow. That means continued education and training to ensure workers have the necessary skillsets to make them more employable. This next generation will be the ones building the foundation for driving improvements in advanced manufacturing processes and keeping companies competitive.
  • Reframe the perception of manufacturing jobs. These are crucial jobs and it is going to take a unique and developed skill set of workers who can grasp operation technology (OT) and information technology (IT). These hybrid workers will be the future. They will be working in faster-paced and more advanced manufacturing environments than their predecessors.
  • Manufacturers must look at the global market. Just getting its arms around sustainable employment is not going to be enough. Companies who think they are attracting the right talent will see more international and domestic competition. They will target their workforce as high demand skillsets become more specialized and unique to the market. The days of low-skill labor in manufacturing are being phased out and companies must be proactive and take a world view on talent needs and investment.

The manufacturing days of old are gone, but for some reason, the industry has yet to reset on the expectations of our workforce when it comes to making their career choices in manufacturing. It is still going to take a lot of the essence from the old days – skills, commitment and work ethic – but the added layer of technology, digitization, and data is changing the strategy to require an upskill approach to workforce development.

It comes down to embracing change, managing perceptions, and taking responsibility from educators, vendors, and the manufacturing sector. This community must do more to demonstrate the shift to students pursuing their bachelors, masters, or doctorate degree. It’s also important to invest in the underutilized system of trade schools that offer very good opportunities for people who want to develop the right technical skills. A combination of all different skill sets within the workforce is needed to make products on the floor the right way. Everyone in the manufacturing field has to take some responsibility in leading this effort so we can combine this amazing workforce with the groundbreaking technology that will move this industry forward.

The whole workforce is in play. The industry cannot be comfortable and cannot be complacent.

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