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SME Chief Warns of ‘Silver Tsunami’ Facing Manufacturing

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

NOVI, MI — Manufacturing faces an even larger shortage of skilled workers as older employees retire over the next few years, the head of SME said in a speech today.

“Call it the ‘Silver Tsunami,'” Jeff Krause, executive director and CEO of SME (Dearborn, MI), said during an address at the HxGN LOCAL Automotive Summit in Novi, MI.

“Manufacturing companies need a succession plan,” Krause said. “How do you attract and retain millennials?”

Many factory jobs are held by Baby Boom generation workers who are retiring from the workforce. For example, the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI) has estimated as many as 75% of current tool and die workers at some companies may retire over the next five to seven years. Manufacturers say there’s already a significant shortage of skilled manufacturing employees.

Bringing millennials into manufacturing may require different techniques, Krause said.

“Millennials want to know what the mission of the organization is,” he said. “Allow millennials to share their ideas. Provide immediate feedback.”

Manufacturing also needs to reach out to young students, Krause said.

“The time to attract someone to manufacturing is when they are eight years old,” he said. “That’s why Manufacturing Day is so important.”

SME CEO Jeff Krause speaking at HxGM LOCAL Automotive Summit in Novi, MI

Manufacturing Day events often are aimed at showcasing manufacturing to students. For example, an Oct. 6 event at Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT; Detroit) brought in students from area schools.

The students received tours at LIFT’s Corktown complex, which is intended to help develop new, lightweight materials. LIFT and the Institute for Advanced Composites Innovation (IACMI; Knoxville, TN) share space at the complex. Students toured both LIFT and IACMI facilities. Both are part of the Manufacturing USA group of institutes where companies and universities collaborate on manufacturing projects.

‘Lightning Rod’

Krause said the manufacturing industry needs to work on boosting the appeal of manufacturing jobs to younger workers.

Traditionally, much of manufacturing consisted of workers doing repetitive tasks. Many of those tasks are now falling to robots and other forms of advanced manufacturing. Workers on the factory floor now are expected to oversee and manage high technology equipment.

“There is a misperception of what manufacturing is about,” Krause said. “There are very few unskilled jobs in manufacturing.”

New developments, such as increased deployment of additive manufacturing, are bolstering the sector’s image. With additive, or 3D printing, parts are built layer by layer from a digital design.

“Additive manufacturing is the lightning rod that dispels the old manufacturing image,” the SME chief said. “I think we’re making some progress, but we have a long, long way to go.”

SME is the parent organization of Advanced Manufacturing Media and Manufacturing Engineeringmagazine.

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