Don't coast amid letup in labor crisis: Talking Points

Feb. 26, 2024
Take advantage of this seeming respite to rethink your plant environment as well as job benefits to attract and hold onto employees.

By Karen Hanna 

Forget whatever you might have heard lately. The economy is hardly grinding to a halt.  

And the workforce issues you’ve experienced over the past couple years are not going away. 

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the real gross domestic product (GDP) — the measurement of GDP that takes account of inflation — increased at an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2023. That’s normally considered good news — except it’s far off the sizzling rate of the previous quarter, when the real GDP grew 4.9 percent. 

Yet, in a survey for our January issue, over 58 percent of respondents told us that the economy has had a negative impact on their outlook for this year. 

The slowdown — if you can call it that — accompanies a slight loosening in the labor market. The percentage of people hired compared with overall employment is down, from a high of 6.1 percent in July 2020, in the midst of the chaos triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, to a much more typical level of 3.5 percent

Within the manufacturing segment, this measure — known as the hires rate — held steady at 2.8 percent in both October and November, according to the most recent preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

If you have job openings, that should mean it’s easier to fill them. If your shop has had less work, though, maybe you don’t care.

But you should.

Whether your company is growing now, or cooling its heels, the time to consider how you’ll address future labor shortages is now. 

Because, like all trends, this growing-economy-that-sometimes-feels-like-a-contracting-economy will one day give way to something else. Maybe it will be a slowdown that forces you to squeeze all you can from a small-but-agile workforce. Or maybe it’s a growth opportunity you’re hoping to exploit. 

Will you have the people to do it?  

While the number of job openings in the manufacturing sector had dipped below 550,000 in November, according to the preliminary BLS data, hiring challenges are bound to persist. 

In fact, in some ways, we’re just getting started. 

The number of people set to retire every year over the next couple years is around 4 million — taking with them a lot of knowledge and experience you’ll need to replace. 

There’s still fewer than 1 person available for every job. 

If work has slowed, now’s the time to take a deep breath and assess how you’ll attract and keep workers from a shallower labor pool who might not be as interested in the traditional benefits that every company promises. 

Do a Google search for “unusual employee benefits,” and you’ll find a panoply of offerings your HR department probably doesn’t provide.  

At least not yet. 

From healthy snacks and catered meals to financial literacy programs and on-site massages, someone somewhere is providing something you’re not. 

A friend of mine got a yearly stipend ... for Legos. Another friend gets hours off to perform volunteer service. Still another recently brought home colored pencils to his children. 

Quirky? Silly? Stupid? 

Maybe even insulting? 

Perhaps, but someone else I know has paid leave specifically tied to family-caregiving obligations. 

Considering how many people have left the labor force because of responsibilities outside of work, maybe that’s worth considering.  

Your orders don’t stop because someone needs a day off. On the other hand, you can’t risk not getting parts out because you don’t have enough workers.  

Cross training and job sharing should help you roll with the punches.

By analyzing the benefits you offer — and even the atmosphere you’ve either nurtured or neglected at your shop — you might uncover ways to keep workers engaged and interested in working for you.  

Because if they’re not working for you, they could be working for the competition. 

Moving into the rebound that’s sure to come, that’s one benefit you don’t want to provide someone else. 

Share your NPE news! 

If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, here’s one: NPE 2024 is less than 90 days away. Amid all the hustle and bustle of last-minute arrangements, we’re offering an opportunity that fits everyone’s budget: Free coverage.  

Just send us information about what new technology you’re rolling out and the benefits it provides, along with a picture, to [email protected] or the editors you normally work with.  

Deadline to be considered for inclusion in our special April issue, which will be available at the show, is March 1. Act now, and get the word out, so your customers know your booth deserves a visit. 

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.