Lack of Quality Labor Remains Biggest Woe For U.S. Manufacturers

Despite anxieties being cause by tariffs, higher interest rates and gyrating stock markets, U.S. manufacturers still can’t find enough workers amid record-high employment levels in most places in America.Despite anxieties being cause by tariffs, higher interest rates and gyrating stock markets, U.S. manufacturers still can’t find enough workers amid record-high employment levels in most places in America.

And it’s the biggest black mark on levels of optimism that remain high even in the face of all of these obstacles: More than one in four U.S. manufacturers have to turn down new-business opportunities because of the inability to attract a quality workforce, according to the most recent quarterly survey by the National Association of Manufacturers.

It remained the top concern of manufacturers – expressed by 68 percent, outranking increased raw-material costs and trade uncertainties. There are 522,000 open manufacturing jobs in the United States, a record high, NAM said. And a new report from NAM’s social-impact arm, the Manufacturing Institute, and Deloitte projected that 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled over the next decade.

CEOs are attempting to get more traction in hiring in a variety of ways.

Gregory Owens, for instance, CEO of Liberty Tabletop in Sherrill, New York, is tapping into more local and state apprenticeship programs for hiring into the maker of tableware.

“One big challenge when we have to hire someone who is green as grass is that their productivity is next to nothing at the beginning,” Owens said. Apprenticeships “help us hire people at one [lower] rate and as they progress forward, six months to a year from now, when they’re up to speed we can give them benchmarks and targets. It doesn’t kill you financially when they’re not at a productive level out of the blocks.”

Max McIntyre takes advantage of the advanced-manufacturing training that’s increasingly being offered by community colleges. Last spring, for example, on a recruiting visit to a local college, he spoke to about 50 students about the company of which he is a vice president, New England Airfoil Products, a maker of gas-turbine products in Farmington, Connecticut.

“A lot of them weren’t kids,” he said. “Some were changing careers. I got several interviews out of that for machine operators, quality inspectors and metrology people.”

Emerson Electric, a major diversified manufacturer based in St. Louis, has improved its own family-leave program while the federal government dithers with the possibility of requiring companies to do so.

Another potential avenue? Buying a company that has the talent your looking for. This is a strategy being followed by more CEOs, including Rob Hrabe, chief and co-founder of VRC Metal Systems, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based manufacturer that has been trailblazing a cutting-edge “cold-spray” welding technique. He wants to push the $18-million company to a $100-million enterprise within the next five years, but he needs much more engineering talent to do it.

“So we’re actually going after acquisitions just because of the senior engineering talent they have in thermal-spray [welding] and other industries,” Hrabe says.

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