It’s not a great time to be in the manufacturing jobs recruitment business. Factories are suffering from branding issues, high schools are pushing students toward four-year schools instead of technical colleges, and the new President is telling everyone the industry is dying.

US President Donald Trump specifically called out the manufacturing industry in his January inaugural address, claiming, “rusted out factories [are] scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”

All of this makes it hard to entice the skilled workers the sector desperately needs.

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“There are definitely a lot of jobs,” says Pat Dean, director of recruiting for the last two years and currently the director of talent management for Advanced Technology Services. “One, manufacturing continues to grow. Two, we’re seeing the generation that has worked in the factories are starting to retire, so that’s what's really creating this skills gap. The number of open jobs is well going to outpace the number of people interested in those jobs.”

In 2012, as the recession began to lift, Fluke—providing manufacturing, distribution and service of electronic test tools, biomedical equipment and networking solutions—surveyed its North American customer base on the skills gap.

At the time, 93 percent of respondents said it was very difficult to find entry-level workers with acceptable skills, and more than half said candidates lacked enough years of on-the-job experience to effectively perform in their positions.

Things that took a beating during the recession included:

  • On-the-job mentoring
  • Apprenticeships
  • Specialization
  • Going home on time

Fluke also cited a study posted in 2016 by the AED Foundation that indicates the North American skills gap has persisted even as the economy has recovered. In fact, US manufacturing may still be “foregoing 11 percent of earnings and 9 percent of revenue due to the skills gap and the inability to hire qualified workers.”

In the same study, 59 percent of Canadian executives surveyed struggled to find qualified candidates, 60 percent said they had lost customers as a result of the technician shortage, and 40 percent said the shortage increased costs and decreased productivity.

But companies are working to change that.

Branding the manufacturing industry

Everyone seems to agree that it needs to start with better branding efforts.

“Recruiting people into manufacturing is a challenge,” says Arvind Rao, director, global business development, architecture and software segment at Rockwell Automation. “Computer science engineers are going into more technical roles than coming into the manufacturing space.”

Peter Dettmer, who co-chairs the Automated Manufacturing Program at Madison Area Technical College, which is partnering with Rockwell in a training program, says employers are struggling to find qualified, entry-level people to work as technicians.

“If you listen to the media, you almost get this feeling that manufacturing is dying or has been dead...but if you look at food, so much of our food gets made here.”

– Arvind Rao

“One reason is that many younger people haven’t known about opportunities in manufacturing. And a lot of them haven’t been interested in hearing about them,” he explains.

And a lot of that stems from the old-school image people have about manufacturing.

“I think the stereotype over the years has been that factories are dark, dirty, dangerous places, and what we’re finding in a lot of the work that we do is that these plants are actually very highly mechanized, very technologically advanced places to work,” Dean says. “In the younger generations, that stereotype lingers, and it’s one of the reasons that they shy away from those types of jobs.”

It’s an image that starts before potential employees even graduate from high school.

“The greatest threat to North American manufacturing is not foreign competition; it’s the high school counselor,” says Brian Fortney, global business manager for workforce and training services at Rockwell Automation.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems seems to be that so many high schools push students toward a four-year degree, regardless of whether that’s the best fit for a student or not, simply because they think it’s “better.”

“We teach the next generation about manufacturing solely from history books,” Fortney says. “I remember watching ‘Transformers,’ and I got into a lot of these manufacturing spaces, and it’s a lot like ‘Transformers.’ It’s the future.”

Of course, high schools can’t take all the blame for the branding problems the sector faces.

“If you listen to the media, you almost get this feeling that manufacturing is dying or has been dead,” says Rao. “And, I think, T-shirt manufacturing maybe, but if you look at food, so much of our food gets made here. It’s not like our cereal gets made in China; a lot of our food still gets made here.”

And things like Trump’s inaugural comments paint a bleak picture of the manufacturing industry in the United States. While Fortney says he is neutral when it comes to politics, he did say that comments like that don’t paint an accurate picture of the sector.

“It’s very easy to make people aware of a problem that’s already solved. You can make something sound like a rusted out factory, and then you can go off on tour and promote what actually is in place right now, and all of a sudden, it looks like you solved the problem,” he explains. “You get credit for solving a problem that wasn’t a problem. From a political standpoint, there’s some cleverness to it.”

Rao says that the industry is indeed very strong.

“How cereal gets made,” he explains, “it’s a very technical field, but the industry doesn’t get credit for how technical it can be. People don’t know how cereal gets made; they just think it’s very non-technical.”

Partnering with colleges

Of course, even if people do decide to go into manufacturing, there’s still the matter of training them for the high-skilled jobs that are in demand.

Many manufacturers have partnered with local colleges and universities, as well as with each other, to re-create the apprenticeship. This is exactly what the industry needs, says Leah Friberg, the education and industry relations manager for Fluke.

“Training is essential, training, training, training, because if you look at the national debate, this change has been going on for 10 years. Plants continue to become more automated, and the type of people they employ is going to be different,” she says. “And manufacturers are helping with that, either by building their own collective or by directly supporting [schools].”

For its part, Rockwell has partnered with colleges all over the world, including at the Madison Area Technical College in Madison, WI.

Dettmer, who joined Madison College five years ago as an instructor, says that, at the time, the college offered students some training with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other industrial technology classes. But manufacturing leaders in the Madison area wanted more comprehensive training to bridge their growing skills gap. So, Dettmer and others formed a steering committee to help identify those needs and chart a course for Madison College to meet them.

Starting in 2009, the committee helped the college secure workforce-initiative grants from the state and federal government to expand its industrial class offerings, and purchase and update equipment for hands-on instruction.

Dettmer also developed a new two-year associate’s degree called automated manufacturing systems technology with Co-program Director Rick Jacobs.

“Our goal was to allow students—not only high school graduates, but people who needed retraining or who were underemployed or unemployed—to start from basically zero knowledge in manufacturing and learn everything necessary to have a successful career and good income upon graduation,” Dettmer explains.

So, Madison College contacted Rockwell Automation, requesting to become part of the company’s Educational Support Program. The program provides accredited educational institutions and students with economical access to Rockwell Automation hardware, software and training tools.

“Rockwell Automation has long working relationships with four-year colleges, but this is the first time we’ve partnered this closely with a two-year technical college,” says Scott Feldmann, account manager at Rockwell Automation in the Madison area. “We recognized that by working with Madison College, we had an ideal opportunity to help train the workforce that’s needed in this area. Education is part of our commitment to the community and our commitment to our customers.”

After successfully completing the automated manufacturing program at Madison College, students who want to acquire their maintainer certificate must take an additional class taught by Rockwell Automation instructors on-site and pass a test to demonstrate their mastery of the material.

“Having a certificate from a world-leading manufacturer really makes a difference for people who are searching for a job or advancement in their careers,” Dettmer says. “There are close to 1,000 job openings in our region relating to our career offerings. So, we expect that most of our students will have their pick of places to work upon graduation.”

Of course, even if companies can recruit the right people, and they have the right training, there’s still another roadblock. Many new hires are taking over for people who have been in the factory for decades, doing the same job and relying on information mostly stored in their heads.

“It’s definitely going to be an uphill battle,” says ATS’s Dean. “We have a lot of institutional, long-term knowledge that is sitting with people that are going to retire in the next five to 10 years, and we have to make sure they [the new hires] are ready to fill those shoes. We see it getting harder and harder every day, and we have to figure out new and innovative ways to deal with it.”

That’s where companies like Fluke come in. It works with the out-going generation to create a cloud-based system of information about their jobs that can then be used by new hires.

“It used to be the people who were doing this [factory] maintenance were doing it for a very long time, and they had been with this machine possibly since it was installed,” Friberg explains. “And it was in all their head. What MS does is, it measures things that are really intangible, like what noise does it make? And how much does it shake?”

“We have a lot of institutional, long-term knowledge that is sitting with people that are going to retire in the next five to 10 years, and we have to make sure they [the new hires] are ready to fill those shoes.”

– Pat Dean

Then, they use that information to train new hires. And they make the information more user friendly, so staff can use it without as much advanced training.

“An engineer just wants data, and they will make their own decisions,” Friberg says. “[But] they want tools now that offer more autofocus options to do more of the analytics for you, so that you get a result that you can act on yourself.”

Friberg says there’s a clear difference between how the two generations approach work, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

“The older generation, they are almost like artisans. They take the job and the success of what they do very, very seriously,” she says. “[For millennials] what’s important to them is a little different. They are going to look a little bit more at outcomes. They’re a lot more interested in data, way more interested in that than the previous generation would have been. They still take their jobs very seriously, but it’s like the priorities are stacked differently.”

Staffing temp jobs

When it comes down to it though, a lot of the industry still depends on temp workers, and here, technology is also changing the staffing landscape.

MS Companies is just one example of this. The company coordinates with potential temp employees via an app and alerts them of local jobs right on their cell phones.

Chris Reffett, vice president at MS Companies, says the company uses the service to reach workers on all points of the employment spectrum, from $10 an hour to $180 an hour.

“We don’t have a secret pool of really good workers that nobody else has,” he says. “But we do have the tools to make it more efficient and provide training, so we created a mobile, on-demand solution.”

And the app makes it incredibly easy for plant managers to send out an alert for workers.

“So, for example, a production manager comes into the plant and realizes ‘we just got a huge order from Kroger, I need to bring some people in,’” Reffett explains. “They can look right on their phone and put in a request immediately that starts that process and allows us to fill that with people who are prescreened, and we can start getting to work much more efficiently and provide the right person for the right job.”

And it makes sense for the changing workforce.

“There’s a staffing company on every street, so our owner leader, Pete Butler, saw the change with the millennials and the gig economy and how we use technology to communicate and saw this trend coming years ago,” Reffett says. “The way people actually do communicate today is not by a phone call or even email. How many unanswered emails do you have today? With this emerging workforce, we are really embracing this millennial gig culture and also allowing our customers to be able to flex their labor.”

It’s a process that seems almost tailor-made for the food industry, which is constantly dealing with seasonal fluctuations in demand.

The manufacturing industry is no doubt going to be around for years to come. Whether or not it has the right staff, though, will depend on how willing companies are to embrace change.

“It’s so much change, but it’s all super interesting,” Friberg says. “And it was the way it was for a long time, and it’s interesting that so many people are contributing to figuring out what this means, so it will just keep on evolving.”

For more information:

Rockwell Automation, Arvind Rao, (440) 646-3434,
And, Brian Fortney, (440) 646-3434,,

Fluke, Frederic Baudart, +14254465863,,

Advanced Technology Services, Pat Dean, (309) 693-4000,,

MS Companies, Chris Reffett, (866) 674-7678,,