By Ron Shinn
Finding and keeping workers is a nearly universal problem for plastics processors, particularly those with a critical need to add another shift or expand their manufacturing operation.
There is some optimism that post-COVID, particularly when supplemental government benefits expire, people will come back to work and fill manufacturing jobs.
It is not going to happen.
Joe Campbell, head of U.S. marketing for Universal Robots USA Inc., explained why during a recent webinar with Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing. The webinar focused on improving productivity with automation. Here is a summary of Campbell’s sobering explanation of what lies ahead:
Some 62 percent of respondents in a December 2020 survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said attracting and retaining a quality workforce is their primary business challenge. It topped weaker sales, rising health care costs, increased raw material costs and a wide range of other issues.
About 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every day. These boomers, age 55 and older, represent 27 percent of the workforce.
Millennials and Generation X’ers are not interested in filling the jobs vacated by boomers. A study by Deloitte reported that 83 percent of the U.S. population found manufacturing jobs important but less than one-third would encourage children to pursue manufacturing jobs.
“We have an aging workforce that is retiring at a very high rate and that trend is going to continue for the next decade,” Campbell said. “We just don’t have enough interest from younger people to come into manufacturing to fill those slots.”
Currently, about 9.8 million workers are unemployed — about 3.8 million more than before the start of the COVID pandemic. But Campbell said that will not translate into a skilled, committed workforce for the plastics industry post-COVID because of significant issues with skills gaps, training costs and job preferences. Long term, it will get worse.
The job recruiting website Indeed said that job postings returned to pre-COVID levels in January. NAM reported that 49 percent of manufacturing companies expected to increase their staff by 5 percent or more in 2021.
Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute are predicting 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030, which is five times the number of unfilled jobs today. “That is a really significant number,” Campbell said.
Deloitte said 82 percent of survey respondents reported inability to grow topline revenue by adding new customers and 81 percent said they are not able to maintain production to meet current demand.
The New York Times reported recently that Missouri, one of the first four states to stop the $300 extra federal unemployment payments, is not seeing an increase in job applications. Indeed said clicks on job openings are below the national average in states that have ended federal benefits.
Campbell has 40 years of experience in factory automation and is a keen observer of manufacturing challenges. He makes a strong argument that automation and investments in smart factories are critical. You can watch the webinar at plasticsmachinerymanufacturing.com/webinars.
I am certain he is correct on that point. I visited a company in late 2019 that purchased its first collaborative robot one day and had it tending an injection molding machine the next day. This is an immediate fix with a very short ROI.
The pandemic has caused manufacturers to take a second look at automation, particularly robotics. But there is a longer-term labor problem.
What can you do now? Some of the job training programs proposed by the Biden administration might get young workers excited about manufacturing. Free technical college is another program that could pay big benefits.
But waiting on the federal government won’t keep you in business.
Plastics processors need to take a critical look at their own operations. Are you automating where you can? Are there smart factory techniques that would help? Are you paying good people you already have enough to keep them from going down the street to another job?
Take a long view of your operation. Saying you cannot afford a robot might not be the most cost-effective answer.
There also needs to be some outside-the-box thinking. Bringing middle school students through the plant on Manufacturing Day is fine, but it won’t solve the problem.
Other than supporting Manufacturing Day, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) has not seized on workforce development as a critical issue for processors. The association could do more. (See PLASTICS column on page 44.)
Does the American labor force need an infusion of immigrants who want to learn factory work? If our current labor pool is not meeting the challenge, maybe we need to supplement it in some way.
There is probably no single answer to the long-term workforce question. But the industry must invest more resources and brain power in finding solutions.
Our December cover story will be about workforce development. Let us know your thoughts and success stories.
Ron Shinn, editor