We’ve heard it time and time again from producers and associates alike: it’s getting harder to find and keep employees. Whether the issue is finding enough people, the right skill sets or employees who will stick around, the industry is lacking for new talent and it’s daunting to think about how much harder it will be in the future. We understand and share in the frustration – we wish we had a magic wand to wave and fix the problem – but the stark reality is this is a complex problem with no easy solution.

Talent shortage is real

First, understand you’re not alone in this phenomenon. It affects nearly every manufacturing industry across the country. In their skills gap study, Deloitte Consulting and The Manufacturing Institute reported 67% of respondents from the manufacturing sector have “a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers.”1 Moreover, the study uncovered that 56% of respondents identified the area of most impact was in skilled production jobs. And it doesn’t stop there. The issue is compounded when you consider 80% of respondents stated those same production jobs are the ones impacted the most by impending retirements. In short, the current workforce is aging while new, skilled production workers are harder to find.

The study estimates that between 2015 and 2025 manufacturing environments will have 3.5 million jobs to fill nationwide. Two million positions will likely go unfilled because of the scarcity of skilled production workers. The first step in addressing this problem is to really understand this issue and why we expect it to get worse.

Demographic shifts

The demographic and economic shifts in the U.S. since the turn of the century have contributed to two simultaneous realities: the current workforce is both older and younger than it used to be. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Simply put, there is a high concentration of workers postponing retirement, and at the same time, The Pew Research Center reports that millennials make up nearly half the overall workforce.

Those employees who are postponing retirement cite a myriad of reasons for doing so, but The Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s is often credited with impacting retirement plans.2 Digital technology is also a disruptive force in manufacturing, changing social values and norms and the personal expectations of younger generations entering the workforce. In a report titled, “The Future of The Workforce: Critical drivers and challenges,” Deloitte Consulting cited these and other factors that present challenges to employers.3 These factors require both workers and businesses to adapt if we don’t want our industry to suffer from worker shortages.

Adapting to generation shifts

From a business perspective, personal expectations of the new generation have given way to a new era called the age of the consumer. In the current economic age, businesses such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Apple are thriving. This age has seen dynamic shifts away from those that came before it, but that does not have to be negative. We simply need to understand where we’ve been, acknowledge that demographic and economic factors have shifted, and take stock of where we are today so we can adapt accordingly and make good business decisions. For the sake of the workforce development conversation, we’ve also added generational information.

Why study the past? 

It’s important to understand economic eras and their impact on people at a much deeper level because the economic drivers that exist during a person’s formative years have an outsized impact on their expectations when they enter the workforce, in addition to the economy.

The length of each economic age decreased over time (see Generation Breakdown). Baby boomers are most likely to have experienced just one economic age during their formative years and entry into the workforce. The likelihood of that homogeneity has decreased over time, and now every new employee you hire will span several economic ages, each contributing to their diverse expectations of you as an employer.

The future manufacturing workforce

When an experienced worker retires from your plant, it’s not just a wealth of knowledge lost, but a level of company and industry dedication that is synonymous with the baby boomer work ethic. The perception of many employers is that level of dedication is not as prevalent in subsequent generations. It requires us to change the way we find, keep and treat employees. We’ll focus on those three issues in subsequent articles.

Attracting the future workforce

In the next article, we’ll talk about what’s working and what isn’t working for precasters across the country. Local technical school or high school career fairs have proven to be good places to find new plant-floor employees. Local veteran’s administration offices are also quality sources for talent. But, as we enter the new era of workforce development, it might be a good idea to use those sources as incubators for future talent instead of just finding someone willing to do the work.

The National Precast Concrete Association can play a key role in making the industry an attractive place for prospective employees too. What if your future employees are not just “getting a job,” but are “entering an industry” that is committed to their careers? That can be a powerful force when employees are weighing their options about where they want to work.

Training the future workforce

On-the-job training is important. It keeps new employees engaged and helps them forge meaningful relationships with their coworkers. The importance of a solid onboarding program that includes safety, quality, production and more, ensures new employees feel secure and know their work is meaningful. That’s an important shift in thinking for many precasters – we don’t just want employees to do the job well, we have to plan to ensure they feel good in those positions.

Retaining the future workforce

Educating your workforce is also important and NPCA can play a critical role in that pursuit. Live courses, webinars, the Master Precaster certification, The Precast Show, and even committee participation can show workers that they belong to something much bigger, more meaningful and personally rewarding than if they worked at a local manufacturing facility that treated them simply as a laborer. It can be tempting to put this off for many reasons – financial, time away from the plant when labor is already at a shortage or even fear of making employees more attractive to other employers – but don’t let these hold you back. It’s better to risk having a highly trained employee leave than have an untrained employee stick around. Membership in NPCA and the nationwide exposure it offers those who participate in the association’s programs can yield amazing retention results in your plant.

Coming up next

The next three articles in this series will dive deeper into three topics, and in the last part we’ll go in depth about what tactics you can employ in your own plant and in your own community to ensure baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, and all future generations see your plant not just as a place to work, but a place to stay.

Alex Morales, M. Ed., is NPCA’s director of workforce development.

Resources: cites that 401(k) accounts lost $3,000,000,000 in value

Generation Breakdown Sidebar

Age of manufacturing (1900 – 1960; 60 years)

From about 1900 to 1960, manufacturing was the backbone of America. Businesses such as Ford and Boeing were growing rapidly. Births in this era make up the baby-boom generation.

Age of distribution (1960 – 1990; 30 years)

From about 1960 to 1990, the distribution of goods was the sector of the economy that was expanding. Companies like UPS, along with rail and trucking routes, were growing. Births in this era make up primarily Generation X with millennials starting in the last third. There isn’t a set date that separates Gen Xers from baby boomers, or Gen Xers from millennials, and the generations tend to complement each other as do the ages.

Age of information (1990 – 2010; 20 years)

Beginning around 1990, the internet began changing everything. Populating the internet with easily-accessible information was paramount and the number of new websites grew exponentially on a daily basis. For example, Google is a company that characterizes this era. Births in this era make up the majority of the millennial generation.

Age of the consumer (2010 – ?)

Once the internet was fairly well populated with information, companies began to learn that they could connect with individual consumers quite readily and consumers learned that they really liked the personal attention. Smartphone manufacturers like Apple and online social networks like Facebook are synonymous with this era. The term Generation Z identifies this generation, but many millennials identify with the age of the consumer.


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