Ohio’s graying manufacturing workforce threatens to saddle some employers with labor shortages and hefty costs associated with training and replacing retiring employees.
About one in four manufacturing workers in Ohio is 55 and older, which is up from more than one in seven workers a decade ago, according to a review of state data by the Dayton Daily News.
A wave of retirements in coming years could exacerbate the gap between the supply of skilled workers and the demand for them, some industry experts said. Some local manufacturers said they already struggle to fill job openings because of a dearth of qualified candidates.
“(The) ‘tie that binds’ all of these folks in manufacturing is the critical shortage our industry is facing in the area of qualified workers to replace those which we will lose over the next decade between retirement and attrition,” said Greg Knox, chairman of the Dayton Region Manufacturers Association and owner of Knox Machinery in Franklin.
In order to attract younger talent, companies need to better educate the public on the reality of the modern manufacturing work environment, and how the sector pays better than the service industry, experts said. Investing in internal training programs could also help address the “skills gap.”
In 2012, 24 percent of Ohio’s manufacturing workforce was 55 and older, up from 15 percent in 2002, according to U.S. Census data reviewed by the newspaper.
That was slightly higher than the state average: about 21 percent of all workers — except federal employees — are 55 and older.
Some industries in the state are aging faster than others. The share of workers 55 and older ranges from 8 percent of payrolls in accommodation and food services to 30 percent in educational services.
Jobs waiting to be fill
After years of declines, Ohio’s manufacturing sector has added jobs since the start of the economic recovery, but many open positions remain unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the right skills, industry experts said.
Bright young people often seek work in other sectors, because they have negative and outdated views of manufacturing work, said Deb Norris, vice president of workforce development and corporate services at Sinclair Community College.
Many people incorrectly believe the manufacturing sector is dying, and the work environment is “dirty, dark and dingy,” she said. Often, they also believe the jobs are low-paying and physically demanding.
“Today’s manufacturing is not what it was 15 to 20 years ago — it is very high-tech,” she said.
Most of the redundant tasks at factories have been automated, and manufacturers today need “knowledge workers” who can think conceptually and who are problem-solvers, said Knox, chairman of the Dayton Region Manufacturers Association
“In this computerized age, the majority of the jobs we are talking about require more brain muscle than back muscle,” he said.
Gone are the days when manufacturers hired students straight out of high school with no experience or training, said Ned Hill, dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.
Manufacturing vs. service jobs
Most of the entry-level manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and manufacturing workers usually at very least need basic technical skills to prepare them for modern factory work, he said.
“People have to realize that the real wage level in a good manufacturing plant and the job security is (much better) than in the service sector,” Hill said. “The demand for workers and job security in manufacturing is better than being a newly graduated lawyer.”
The manufacturing sector needs an image makeover to attract more young people to factory work, experts said. Last year, 6 percent of manufacturing workers in Ohio were under the age of 25, Census data show. By comparison, 14 percent of workers in all industries statewide were 24 or younger.
Some local companies are attempting to drum up interest in manufacturing careers among young people by hosting tours and open houses.
A few local companies recently opened their doors to school guidance counselors so they could get a better and more accurate impression of the modern manufacturing facility to pass onto students.
The local manufacturers association has four initiatives aimed at raising awareness of manufacturing careers at the high school level. The association hosts a competition where local students build robots and then put them to battle.
The company said the goal is to inspire students to pursue a career in robots and automation.
“We have real needs right now for more technicians, programmers, engineers and maintenance personnel,” said Erik Nieves, technology director for Motoman Robotics.
Of course, manufacturers do not just need more people interested in the work. They need more people who can do the work. And some companies have struggled to find them.
Vocational schools and community colleges are helping train some people for modern factory work, experts said. But they added that it is imperative companies invest in internal training programs, such as job shadowing, on-the-job mentoring or even e-learning courses.
The increasing complexity of the work responsibilities in manufacturing can make it expensive to replace retiring workers. The median cost of replacing a retiring manufacturing employee a few years ago was $5,000, compared to $3,000 in other industries, according to the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.
Few manufacturing companies have analyzed projected retirements rates and developed succession plans, even though it is crucial they facilitate the transfer of knowledge from their more experienced workers to those with less experience, said Stephen Sweet, visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work.
Manufacturers need to plan ahead, but they also could better attract and retain talented replacement workers, especially women and older workers, by offering more schedule flexibility, Sweet said.
“Many manufacturers are telling us they are having a harder time getting people (into the industry), partly because manufacturing has gotten a bad rep,” said Lewis Horner, assistant bureau chief for labor market research with the Ohio Labor Market Information. But “some people with associate’s degrees, if they are in engineering and computer areas, often make more money than people with bachelor’s degrees in areas, such as liberal arts.”