Labor Shortage Crisis Needs an ‘All of the Above Solution’
Solving the manufacturing industry’s labor shortage is a critical issue for Connecticut’s economy.
“We must continue working together to address the labor shortage,” Carolyn Lee, president of The Manufacturing Institute, said at the Oct. 27 Made in Connecticut Manufacturing Summit in Wallingford.
Lee said there are 12.9 million people working in U.S. manufacturing today. That’s the most since December, 2008.
“That’s the good news,” she said. ”Now the harder news. We have about 800,000 jobs we need to fill across the country.”
That includes 11,000 here in Connecticut.
“This is not a new problem.” said Lee [pictured above]. “This is something we’ve faced for over a decade now.
“By the end of the decade, we’ll need to fill four million jobs in the sector. Of those, 2.1 million will go unfilled because we don’t have the people with the skills.”
A recent National Association of Manufacturers survey found that three quarters of manufacturers said attracting and retaining a quality workforce was one of the biggest challenges.
The labor shortage is even more acute in Connecticut.
The 2022 Connecticut Manufacturing Report, released at the Oct. 27 summit, showed that 87% of manufacturers reported difficulty finding and/or retaining employees and 44% say the lack of skilled applicants is the greatest obstacle to growth.
Twenty-two percent of manufacturers are making their greatest investment in employee retention.
Citing a pre-pandemic report the institute produced with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Lee said a quarter of all U.S. manufacturers estimate that between 30% and 40% of their employees are over the age of 55.
“COVID accelerated retirements,” Lee said. “Going into COVID, every seven seconds a baby boomer was retiring, so now that accelerated and we have a bigger gap that we need to fill.”
How do we make headway towards solutions for finding and retaining a quality workforce?
“It needs to be an all of the above solution,” said Lee. “All of us have a role in making sure that manufacturing is growing and that we’re adding jobs.“
Part of addressing the labor shortage, she says, is changing the perception of manufacturing.
“Our industry needs to overcome this misperception that manufacturing is dirty, dark, and dangerous,” Lee said.
“Many Americans, usually parents, are clinging to the notion that the manufacturing industry is not a place where you can find satisfying, well paying, lifelong careers.
“When parents cling to these perceptions, they impart these ideas on their kids.
“One of the misperceptions about the sector is you’re going to come in, you’re going to work on an assembly line, you’re gonna do that for 40 years and you’re going to retire.”
Lee told an audience of 220-plus manufacturing leaders that “we absolutely need to change the minds of parents just as much as we need to change the minds of students.”
She added that progress is being made about the perception of manufacturing, thanks in part to the efforts by the manufacturing industry during the pandemic.
“In 2017, only 27% of parents said they would encourage their children to enter manufacturing,” she said. “As of 2021, that had risen to 40%.”
Aside from changing the perception of manufacturing, Lee said an important way to resolve the labor shortage is attracting underrepresented groups.
“Our industry has left a lot of folks on the table,” she said.
Women in Manufacturing
Lee pointed to U.S. Census data that shows women make up about 47% of the American workforce, but just under 30% of the manufacturing workforce.
The institute’s 35 x 30 campaign is designed to increase women’s representation in manufacturing to 35% by 2030.
“By getting the number of women in the industry up to 35%, we could fill all of the open positions in manufacturing today,” Lee said.
Lee said research has shown that part of what keeps women from joining the industry is a lack of “mentorship, role models, and the community to join and stay in the sector.”
She said it’s important for women who are leading in the sector to step up as role models and mentors for younger women in the industry and students from four-year colleges, community colleges, high schools, and middle schools.
“We lose too many girls in the middle school age group and then they don’t continue their pursuit of STEM fields,” she noted.
“Giving visibility to women in manufacturing makes the industry a more welcoming place for other women. You cannot be what you cannot see.”
Opportunities for Veterans
Veterans are another group that Lee says is underrepresented in manufacturing.
More than 200,000 women and men transition out of the military every year. There are about 2.3 million veterans who are unemployed or underemployed in the U.S.
Lee said these men and women have skill sets that include discipline, experience, and motivation, as well as soft skills often lacking in the civilian workforce including communication, teamwork, and the ability to be trained.
“They have no idea that their experience has a home here in our sector,” she said.
“We’re working to transition the population and give them the skill set so they can go onto their next career.”
Second Chance Hiring
Lee also highlighted the need to expand second chance hiring opportunties.
“Astoundingly, one in four Americans have a criminal record, or some exposure to the criminal justice system which is often leading them to have barriers to employment,” she said.
Lee pointed to surveys showing that second chance employees are more engaged and loyal employees. That leads to higher retention rates and lower turnover.
“Working with community based organizations and partners in your community who are helping these folks make a transition into a stable career will enable you to be able to recruit folks who are eager today to have a job,” she said.
“And they’re looking to stay—they’re going to be loyal to those companies who gave them a chance.”
‘Many Pathways to Opportunity‘
Tapping into untapped talent is one piece of closing the skills gap. But Lee said there also needs to be a focus on education.
“We need STEM skills and technical certifications to help us navigate the ongoing fourth industrial revolution that’s powering modern manufacturing,” said Lee.
“Young people aren’t necessarily pursuing these skill sets like we need them to.
“Sometimes it’s because they don’t think they’re even available to them.”
Gaining those skill sets doesn’t necessarily mean going to college.
“There are many pathways to opportunity,” Lee said.
“What I often say is we need people with eight weeks of training as well as eight years of training and through that gamut, we’re going to have the skilled workforce that we need.”
CBIA president and CEO Chris DiPentima said that about a third of graduates don’t go on to two or four year colleges or the military.
“If we were able to capture that one-third population that doesn’t go to two or four year colleges or the military, we’d fill all the job openings in Connecticut,” he said.
Lee said it’s vital to make education affordable.
That can be done through initiatives such as modernizing the student financial aid system to better cater to non-traditional students and expanding the federal Pell grant program to include short-term or accelerated education programs.
Lee also highlighted the value of apprenticeships as a way to accomplish the industry’s workforce goals, including recruitment and retention.
“Apprenticeships encourage young people to get into the workforce with the promise of earning a paycheck and graduating with little to no debt and getting that critical experience they need to make sure that their learning and is attractive to the industry,” she said.
Millennials, Gen Z
Manufacturers also need to think differently about millennial and Generation Z workers. That includes hiring and retention initiatives like compensation, benefits, and flexible scheduling.
“You can’t fill your skills needs—you can’t fill all your jobs if you’re losing people from the bottom of the bucket,” Lee said.
“It’s not just the compensation. It is also how do they feel about their jobs and their role and their voice being heard as part of their work community?
“High on the list for millennials and the Zs are things like flexibility—are things about being included.
“Are your beliefs and your ideas—can you bring your whole self to work?
“Is your voice heard at your company?”
When it comes to addressing the challenges of manufacturers, Lee said collaboration among all stakeholders is essential.
“No one entity, no one part of the ecosystem, no one employer can fix this alone,” Lee said. “It is truly about forging those partnerships.”
Partnerships, she added, help policymakers understand the needs and realities of the industry and drive solutions to the labor shortage.
“CBIA’s Transform Connecticut policy pledge is truly an effective blueprint for workforce policy here in Connecticut,” she said.
“Our industry’s strength and competitiveness will be determined, as we all know, by the strength of our workforce.
“After all, they are the creators who pioneer and produce life-saving electronics, and life-saving machines.
“They’re also innovating and building the machines that will transform human mobility, improve the quality of life, and also bolster our national defense.”
The 2022 Made in Connecticut: Manufacturing Summit was produced by CBIA, CONNSTEP, and ReadyCT and made possible through the generous support of TD Bank, with additional support from RSM and Grant Thornton.
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