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COVID-19 and the Manufacturing Worker Shortage

Lynette Kluver  Director of Organizational Development Alexandria Industries
By Lynette Kluver Director of Organizational Development, Alexandria Industries

We need no reminder that 2020 was shockingly different from any year we have experienced before. Each of us could probably name several struggles we’ve endured. For those of us in the manufacturing industry, however, this challenging time has generated opportunities to resolve our ongoing worker shortage issue.

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Robotic cell machine operator Jackie Rechtzigel maintains the work of four machining centers to manufacture components at the Alexandria Industries facility in Alexandria, Minn.

We all know about the six million employees the industry will be short by 2030. Instead, let’s talk about our role—and everyone’s responsibility —to reduce this worker shortage. Not taking action to resolve this issue could cause irreversible harm to the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Opportunity 1: Target Other Industries

Unemployment rates in certain industries have increased—leading into and because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to 2020, we noticed an evolution occurring in the retail industry and the way consumers shop. Online shopping has steadily increased over the last decade, reducing the retail workforce well before COVID-19 led to more changes in our shopping habits. Alternatively, manufacturing continues to provide a stable employment option for U.S. workers.

Because of the pandemic’s restrictions on foodservice establishments and ensuing financial losses, this industry’s workforce is shrinking. Similarly, over one year, unemployment rates in the accommodations sector (e.g., hotels, tourism, etc.), also rose sharply. There’s no telling when or if these industries will rebound.

Increased unemployment in these industries, as well as a heightened sense of job insecurity, has forced many people to consider new career options. Manufacturers need to capture the attention of these individuals now, as they are a great resource for us to fill our open positions.

Opportunity 2: Essential Business Declaration

The terms “essential business” and “essential worker” were mostly unheard of prior to 2020. An essential business declaration means the work of that organization is critical to our country’s national security during a critical time.

During the initial stay-at-home orders from state and local governments to curb the pandemic’s spread, essential businesses were allowed to remain open, keeping their workforces gainfully employed. Other industries were forced to shut down, resulting in many people losing their jobs—some temporarily, and some permanently.

Since COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., many manufacturing employees are still working today. With an essential business declaration, manufacturers must promote job stability and security to attract employees and fill our jobs.

Opportunity 3: The Perceived Value of Four-Year College

With COVID-19, college students at campuses that are open are required to obey face covering and social distancing guidelines or be expelled. All college students today are participating in many, if not all, online classes. These restrictions and new environments are changing the college experience students can expect as they look into the future.

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A comparison of Nov. 2019 (blue) and Nov. 2020 (orange) unemployment rates in targeted industries.

A large number of recent high school graduates anticipated these changes and decided to take a gap year—an informal sabbatical—forgoing college for the moment. There also is indication that many students who decided to attend a four-year college are considering not returning to college after this semester, generating a new group of individuals who will be seeking employment in the near future.

Prior to COVID-19, we were starting to see the swing of high school graduates rethinking their career paths. Many are considering lower-cost, two-year colleges or technical schools, or they are finding other career avenues, such as joining the military or becoming construction trade apprentices. We can only imagine how these influences, and the possibility of many colleges closing, will continue to influence choices after students graduate high school.

Is your manufacturing company taking advantage of the state of industry today? There are different groups of prospective employees you can reach out to, including the unemployed and those who are unsatisfied in their current jobs or uneasy about the longevity of the industry they currently work in. We can help these individuals consider a career in manufacturing. Here are some ideas of ways you can take action today:

  • Educate people on how their skillsets can apply to manufacturing careers.
  • Ask employees who came from another industry to share their stories to help others who are considering switching careers.
  • Continue our efforts to correct the misperceptions of manufacturing. Make sure your organization publishes bright, clean, positive images of your manufacturing areas and teams, so prospective employees will see that manufacturing today is nothing like their grandfather’s manufacturing experience from 50 years ago. Have conversations about safety protocols in your organization so that people can understand that employees are safe at work. The next generation of workers must know that manufacturing offers viable, long-term careers.
  • Grow your relationship with local high school guidance counselors and industrial tech instructors. Host facility tours so students can see what manufacturing looks like today and understand that great careers are available.
  • Create scholarship opportunities for high school graduates pursuing two-year technical programs at trade schools near you.
  • Reach out to students taking a gap year; offer them a scholarship no matter what career they plan to pursue.

As the country continues to reel from the pandemic, manufacturers can be promoting their good jobs to reach individuals who may be willing to look at manufacturing with new eyes.

Preparing to sell your organization to prospective employees today will be different than in the past. Comparing the benefits of working in manufacturing to other industries can help people realize the value of working in this industry. If your organization is declared an essential business, share this detail to provide a sense of job security. We don’t know what could happen next.

Pandemic or no pandemic, these actions are the responsibility of all manufacturers. We must jump on these opportunities to fill our manufacturing jobs now. There is no better place for people to land and be successful in than manufacturing—the industry we all have grown to love.
What are you doing to fill the anticipated shortage of millions of manufacturing workers over the next decade?

Minnesota-based Alexandria Industries delivers custom aluminum extrusions, machined products, heatsinks, and plastic injection and foam-molded components, and provides finishing, assembly and welding services. It operates from five locations—two in Alexandria, Minn., and one each in Wheaton, Minn., Indianapolis, Ind., and Carrollton, Texas.

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