Upstate manufacturers expecting an end to their workforce woes are likely to see the shortage of skilled hands extend well into the next decade.
The latest report by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and Deloitte predicts nearly 5 million open positions by 2028 due to retirement and natural job growth. As also outlined by the study, the growing skills gap could mean less than half those jobs will be filled, leaving 2.4 million empty slots.
For area manufacturers, Mark Farris, CEO of the Greenville Area Development Corp., isn’t pulling his punches, saying, “We still have a few years before we can hope to meet contemporary industry needs for a higher-skilled workforce.”
There has always been a lag between the needs of industry and worker-training programs, he said. As the industry approaches another manufacturing revolution brought about by robotics, 3D printing, and systems integration, he said, “that lag must be shorter if the U.S. hopes to retain its position in the global economy.”
Although Upstate manufacturing executives say the skills gap is not unseen territory, the digital era poses new obstacles to the aging and lower-skilled workforce from just a few decades ago.
Chris Urban, managing director at Aalberts material technology, said the area’s textile workers that moved into manufacturing are now aging out and being replaced by a younger, much different workforce.
“Manufacturers are not able to recruit talent without context and branding,” he said. “Today’s up-and-coming workforce has completely different needs and longs to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
In addition, Urban points to today’s corporate focus on risk aversion and allowing the 1% to drive behavior out of fear as another workforce obstacle.
“Our metrics are set on revenue and profit margins,” he said. “We continue to selfishly focus on the numbers rather than the people.”
The NAM study also shows the average time to ﬁll an open position is on the rise. From 2015 to 2018, days before hire jumped from 70 to 93 for skilled production workers, from 94 to 118 for engineers, researchers, and scientists, and from 48 to 90 for all other workforce areas.
And if that weren’t enough, the skills shortage could put the United States’ $454 billion of manufacturing GDP at risk in 2028.
Advanced robotics manufacturing is a necessity and a competitive advantage for both private manufacturers and the defense industry in the United States, said Kapil Chalil Madathil, assistant professor in Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing, and Applied Sciences.
The nation is realizing that the emergence of Industry 4.0, interoperability, information transparency, and technical assistance in decision-making is now imperative, Madathil said. “We need to build programs capable of bridging the knowledge gap so students can acquire the skills needed to perform high-skilled, robotics-based manufacturing jobs in targeted areas of robust growth in South Carolina’s business community.”
Despite a rise in automated manufacturing processes, the NAM study shows only low-skilled jobs being eliminated, leaving the gap in place.
As part of the report, the World Economic Forum emphasized machines and algorithms will contribute 42 percent of total task hours by 2022, compared with just 29 percent last year.
Not only does the industry still face antiquated perceptions like “the dark, the dingy, and the dangerous,” Madathil said, but the greatest obstacle for educational institutions in today’s market is building a workforce capable of utilizing advanced skill requirements in traditional manufacturing jobs and those created by Industry 4.0.
Students must master the basic skills before taking a position in a robotics-enabled industry environment, while small and medium-scale companies should work with local institutions to incorporate apprentice programs involving robotics-based systems, he said.
Madathil also recommended educational institutions offer industry certification programs and incentives for students and incumbent workers to take online programs, including foundational courses on robotics.
In the interim, the NAM study shows manufacturers are relying on outsourcing but goes on to warn of several risks posed by this short-term solution.
The report names product quality, intellectual property protection, and lost opportunities to develop a steady supply of employees within their own factory walls as the greatest risks.
Alongside South Carolina’s universities and tech programs, staffing companies are also charged with supplying a steady stream of capable hands into the state’s $34 billion manufacturing economic engine.
Drew Brown, vice president of marketing and sales at Godshall Staffing, points the other way, saying, “I’d like to see more of our manufacturers promote the career successes of technical students.”
It is critical that “companies have an ongoing strategy to keep talent aware of opportunities at their organization,” he said.
While staffing companies reach out for industry help, some of South Carolina’s most noted tech programs are also placing their focus on those at the state level.
Spartanburg Community College President Henry C. Giles Jr. recommended the state increase funding to provide comprehensive support services for students enrolled in technical and community colleges.
These students have difficulties staying in school because of work, family, and children, he said. Under current funding, “most colleges cannot afford the faculty or staff necessary to support the needs of all students.”
Alex Clark, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Commerce, said the government organization recognizes the need for industry access to a deep pool of talent.
To meet the state’s workforce needs, “S.C. Commerce is actively working with our allies, from the technical college system and local school districts to four-year universities and workforce-focused nonprofits,” he said.
Although a relationship with industry-related organizations and state and local government remains high on the list for technical programs and other educational entities, an open dialogue with the region’s manufacturing firms is ideal.
Partnerships with employers will remain key in meeting workforce needs, said Dr. Jermaine Whirl, Greenville Tech’s vice president of learning and workforce development.
With educators and employers working together, “workforce challenges can be overcome,” he said.
The NAM report concluded by asking industry leaders to explore additional means of providing exposure to robotics, automation, and computer programming to primary school students.
The data showed that companies often focus on middle and high school students, while engaging primary students can be important to building the foundational skills needed to succeed in the secondary grades.
But, in an emerging manufacturing hub for luxury automobiles and a variety of aerospace applications, Brian Kuney, vice president of the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, worries manufacturers are too busy with the bottom line to keep up with the day to day of workforce demands.
For the time being, firms will leave the lion’s share of workforce development to state and local government, tech programs, and staffing agencies, he said. “Manufacturers are in the business of building things.”