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In 2018, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute set alarm bells ringing with the release of a report that warned the US could have 2.4 million manufacturing workers less than it needs in 2028, resulting in a loss of $454 billion in manufacturing GDP.

If we want to avoid that future, we’ll need to take some urgent steps. We’ll need to do more than just close the skills gaps that currently exist — we’ll need to prevent those gaps from widening again in the years to come.

Let’s take a look at some of the key hurdles facing the manufacturing industry and what organizations can do about them:

Manufacturing Needs a PR Reinvention

One of the biggest challenges facing the manufacturing industry is its aging workforce. Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute predict that 2.69 million manufacturing jobs will become open simply from retirements by 2028. To keep seats filled as baby boomers leave the workforce, manufacturers have to snap up younger talent — but that’s easier said than done.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that manufacturing does not have a great reputation among the workers of tomorrow. According to a separate survey conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 30 percent of American parents would encourage their children to enter the manufacturing industry.

In an article for IndustryWeek entitled “Why Manufacturing’s Not Cool,” high school student Claire Kapitan offers a firsthand account of why many young people are disinterested in manufacturing today. Kapitan explains she wasn’t interested in manufacturing as a possible career choice because she wasn’t ever exposed to it. From her perspective, it was just “factory work” — until she took a proactive approach to finding out more.

“In one article I read, the author talked about how factory jobs also demand creativity and innovative thinking since machines need to be designed, programmed, built, and operated — and that manufacturing careers offer opportunities to work with modern, evolving technology that has a dominant place in modern society,” Kapitan writes. “I was surprised— I hadn’t associated creativity with manufacturing or factory work.”

According to Kapitan, manufacturers could better engage the young people who will make up the backbone of tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce by rethinking how they represent their industry to the public: “[F]ocus on aspects of manufacturing jobs that involve creativity and innovative ideas and … highlight how their company is creating change in the community.”

Unless public perception of the industry changes, it’ll be an uphill battle to encourage the next generation to buy in.

In Search of Digital Skills

Manufacturing is undergoing significant digital transformation as the industry increasingly shifts to automated processes, artificial intelligence, and robotics technologies. This is creating greater demand for tech and digital skills in the manufacturing sector, but the outdated image of manufacturing is making it tough to attract and retain the best people. Tech talent isn’t drawn to manufacturing in the same way it is drawn to fintech, digital media, cybersecurity, and other high-profile sectors.

However, that could change as more companies recognize automation is a necessity, not a luxury. As companies pinpoint the first steps of digitalization and begin to follow through, they’ll have more to show potential tech prospects.

For example, now that we at Fractory have created an award-winning cloud-based platform of our own to digitize our processes, we can more easily position our company as a tech innovator in the manufacturing field. This gives us a brand image that is more likely to appeal to students such as Claire Kapitan and her classmates.

A Stronger Manufacturing Talent Pipeline Starts in Schools

To steer manufacturing away from dealing with a desperate skills gap in the years to come, we need to look at how STEM subjects are taught in schools — if they are taught at all.

STEM instruction should start in secondary school, if not earlier. All kinds of tech workshops can spark the interest of young children. Another important step could be introducing the engineering discipline in the latter stages of secondary school. Classes teaching computer-aided design and showing students what an engineer really does at work can help a lot. We all see the everyday lives of lawyers and doctors on television, but when it comes to engineers and manufacturers, people often have no idea. They think that engineers still work using a pencil and a ruler!

While school curricula are largely the province of the government, manufacturing firms themselves can help get more children engaged with the field by working with schools to sponsor events like field trips to the factory floor. If students can experience for themselves what a manufacturing career is like, the profession would become far more popular.

As with any complex problem, closing the manufacturing skills gap will require a combination of strategies. However, the key is to start executing those strategies today. Every moment we wait bring us one step closer to being 2.4 million manufacturing workers short.

Martin Vares is founder and CEO of Fractory.

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