It’s no wonder that manufacturing jobs go begging. According to a recent study sponsored by Leading2Lean and conducted by ENGINE (formerly ORC International), 70 percent of Americans polled in the “Leading2Lean Manufacturing Index” survey believe the American manufacturing industry is in decline. Fifty-eight percent of people believe that the number of manufacturing jobs in America is declining.

Of those who believe that the industry in America is in decline, 71 percent of respondents attributed jobs being outsourced to foreign countries as the top reason for this decline.

In reality, manufacturing is growing at such a fast rate that over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, and an estimated 2 million of those jobs will go begging, says a Manufacturing Institute/Deloitte study.

“This [Leading2Lean] survey has brought to light the general public’s misconceptions about the current state of the manufacturing industry,” says Keith Barr, Leading2Lean CEO and president. “It seems that the majority of Americans hold outdated assumptions about the industry—when the present-day truth is American manufacturing is thriving.”

Why such a large perception gap? Barr suggests many reasons. Political rancor and grandstanding; adherence to a belief that manufacturing jobs are poorly compensated and prone to monotonous, repetitive work; and new accounts of vacant, rusting buildings all contribute to the mistaken belief that manufacturing has left the US.

The Leading2Lean study also found that only 55 percent of respondents agreed that manufacturing offers fulfilling careers, and only 45 percent agreed that manufacturing jobs are an attractive option to younger workers and the next generation of workers.

“We haven’t done a good enough job explaining to our potential workforce that manufacturing has evolved,” says Barr. “Today’s manufacturing jobs are dynamic [and] require the ability to work with technology and the ability to problem solve complex issues. Systems have even started making use of gamification concepts, which are increasing motivation and engendering positive behaviors, in particular for millennials and Generation Z workers. And, most importantly, these are high-wage jobs.”

Skills sorely needed

If lack of interest isn’t a big enough problem in attracting people to manufacturing, the issue of the skills gap is another looming issue. Six out of 10 manufacturing jobs remain open because of the talent shortage, says the Deloitte study. 

Mary Ramsey, director of the International Society of Automation (ISA), sees the skills problem as a real challenge for her organization. “As an association comprised of many professionals involved in manufacturing throughout the world, ISA is innately aware of the vital role manufacturing plays in increasing technological innovation and driving economic growth. But to sustain strong manufacturing capabilities, you must have a skilled, educated workforce.”

Closing the skills gap, Ramsey points out, will require a significant influx of talented young workers in all fields of engineering, including automation and control—particularly given that throngs of current manufacturing workers, part of the baby boomer generation—are on the verge of retirement.

The Automation Foundation (founded by ISA) works with its member organizations and working groups—as well as ISA members—to increase awareness about the value of advanced manufacturing and to support STEM initiatives in schools and communities. Both ISA and the Automation Federation participated in the recent Manufacturing Day activities on October 5th to raise awareness of manufacturing in the US.

“Our member organizations and many ISA members are actively engaged in grassroots efforts to improve and expand the learning of STEM and get more young people excited about careers in manufacturing,” says Marty Edwards, Automation Federation managing director. “These activities are essential if we are to prepare young people to compete for the well-paying jobs in an increasingly high-tech, high-skill marketplace.”

According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, the average annual salary for production and nonsupervisory employees on private non-farm payrolls is $44,595.20 ($21.44 per hour) as of July 2018, says Barr. This is nearly three times the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Glassdoor reports that a manufacturing technician’s average base pay is $44,751; an automation technician, $49,550 (as of October 2, 2018).

According to 2018 data from Glassdoor, the average base pay for managerial level manufacturing jobs in the US is competitive with tech sector jobs. For example, the average base pay of a manufacturing supervisor is $72,303. For a manufacturing engineer, the average is $82,031, and for a director of manufacturing, the average base pay is $162,893.