Talk to any US manufacturer about the challenges they face, and there’s a strong chance that any of them will raise one factor: the skills gap.
The equation goes like this:
1: Skilled older workers are retiring out of the manufacturing industry, taking their expertise with them
2: Not enough young people are entering manufacturing to replace the numbers leaving
3: A sector that doesn’t have enough skilled people working in it to meet demand.
Hence, the ‘skills gap’ - the gap in the amount of skills required, and those that are actually in play.
As a result, according to Deloitte, the US manufacturing sector is expected to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030 - affecting the country’s ability to build, well, just about everything, from nuclear submarines, to textiles to metal fabrication to semiconductors.
Where does this gap come from - and, more importantly, what can we do about it, in order to prevent US manufacturing becoming the bottleneck that prevents the country’s economic growth?
The manufacturing skills gap: origins
So we know that there is a skills gap - but what causes it in the first place? Why are people retiring faster than their positions can be filled?
In part, it comes back to technology, and the pace of change. At one end of the spectrum, you have a cadre of highly-skilled older workers who may have worked in manufacturing for 30 years or more. This group has built up a lifetime’s worth of experience in how to make parts and components reliably, skilfully and efficiently.
However, manufacturing is a sector that over that period has been through huge structural and technological changes - whether that’s new operating systems, new techniques, or new technologies such as computers.
It’s well known that as people get older, it’s harder to learn new things, and so it is in manufacturing as elsewhere. So, if someone is comfortable enough, rather than have to adapt to another new management team, train another apprentice or learn how to use another operating system, they might retire. If a break point emerges, it’s natural for this generation to decide to hang their boots up - and indeed, during the forced immobility of Covid, many did (around 1.4 million).
At the other end though, technology is also a problem - but for the younger generation, conversely it’s actually a lack of technological sophistication that acts as a deterrent.
While today’s university graduates have grown up with smartphones and accessible online services, the manufacturing world is still pretty analogue and non-intuitive, and it takes a lot of training before a trainee is allowed on - say - a CNC machine. (Indeed, it’s the inaccessibility of that process, and the software that controls it, that inspired the formation of CloudNC).
Marry that accessibility problem with other contributing factors, such as:
- A decline in the number of vocational and technical training programs in the US
- A negative perception of career prospects in the manufacturing sector amongst students, parents and teachers, especially compared to white-collar industries
- A lack of sectoral diversity, which may dissuade women and minorities from seeking careers
- The US falling behind other countries, especially Asia, in STEM subject education, skills which are critical to manufacturing
And you end up with a scenario where, despite active government encouragement, a career in manufacturing isn’t seen as being as exciting or financially rewarding as, say, one in Silicon Valley or investment banking. The result - a skills gap, and an ongoing headache for manufacturers.
The manufacturing skills gap: the implications
According to Deloitte, “leaving the open jobs unfilled in manufacturing could bring a potential negative impact to the US economy of more than US$1 trillion by 2030 alone” - simply because there is demand for manufacturing output, but because of the skills gap, the sector isn’t able to deliver.
Specific problems include:
- Reduced productivity: lacking a skilled and adaptable workforce, manufacturers struggle to optimize production processes and fully utilize advanced technologies, leading to decreased productivity levels (both quantitatively and comparatively with other regions)
- Missed growth opportunities: inability to adapt to innovative manufacturing techniques prevents companies from diversifying their product portfolios and capitalizing on new market opportunities
- Outsourcing: to compensate for the skills gap, manufacturers resort to outsourcing production to countries that do have available workforces - solving one problem, but potentially leading to increased costs, longer lead times, potential quality issues, and a greater environmental impact
- Stagnant economic growth: let’s not forget that the manufacturing industry is often the bellwether of the US economy - if it’s doing well, so is America (as people are both making things, and wanting to buy them).
How can we fix them?
Some of these problems are systemic, and may seem insoluble - but all is not lost. There are ways forward!
At CloudNC, we’re developing technology to automate a large part of the manufacturing process - the programming of a CNC machine, the mini-factory that powers much of the production supply chain. Our new solution, CAM Assist, can save up to 80% of the overall programming time, helping manufacturers be more efficient.
However, CAM Assist is also specifically applicable to the skills gap issues outlined above. If you haven’t got enough senior staff to go around, then you need to make them more efficient and eliminate the day-to-day work that they shouldn’t need to bother with: CAM Assist does that.
Equally, if you want to upskill junior staff more quickly so they can program CNC machines without undergoing years of training and taking training time out of your senior workers’ days, CAM Assist does that too.
It’s a silver bullet. Of course, there are other things that need to happen too to prevent long-term decline: the US needs to promote technical education, apprenticeships and partnerships, and embrace Industry 4.0 overall in order to integrate modern approaches into the sector, and make it more attractive both for the graduates of today, and the apprentices of tomorrow.
But in the immediate term, we believe CAM Assist can help. Want to find out more? Get in touch and you could benefit from a skilled CNC machinist in your machine shop today.