Driven by growing automation and a globalizing economy, American manufacturing continues its transformation, with big implications for workforce development. Lacking a beefed-up supply of workers with right new skills, by 2025 millions of industry jobs could be left unfilled, constraining opportunity and economic growth. Washington state’s manufacturing employers and advocates are in the thick of clearing a path to the future.
Washington manufacturers and a Puget Sound nonprofit representing the industry recommend utilizing tuition reimbursement programs for current employees, retraining returning military members, and partnering with local high schools and community colleges to better meet changing employer needs. They say another priority is tackling a negative image of manufacturing.
The backdrop is a shifting landscape. Research from Deloitte LLP and the Manufacturing Institute indicates 2.7 million manufacturing workers will retire between 2015 to 2025 nationally, likely leaving 2 million unfilled jobs. As well, the number of routine jobs is shrinking, and now stands at less than a third of all employment, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Unwillingness To Take Manufacturing Jobs
“We must encourage workers to upgrade their skills with training in math, science and computing,” Aparna Mathur, resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote last month. “For younger workers, paid apprenticeships with companies could produce big results…we also need to tackle the ‘image-gap’—the unwillingness of some workers to take…jobs that they perceive as similar to the factory jobs of the past.”
Mathur attributes a 14 percent decline in manufacturing employment between 2005 to 2016 to “slow hiring, a small supply of workers, or turnover from workers quitting or being fired.”
King County lost 54,225 manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2008. Concurrently, Snohomish County gained 8,039 manufacturing jobs. This is because the county had facilities, management and experienced workers already at hand.
Though some industries such as printing, furniture and textiles have been declining as a percent of manufacturing jobs nationally in the past 15 years, other manufacturing sub-sectors are growing. Producing transportation equipment accounted for roughly one in nine manufacturing jobs in 2001, compared to nearly one in every 7.5 in 2016.
Gearing Up For Advanced Manufacturing
The non-profit Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound (CAMPS) represents small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses. “Manufacturing has always been a strong segment of the economy,” said CAMPS Executive Director Tom McLaughlin. “The employment count has gone down because of automation and higher productivity…”
According to McLaughlin, Washington’s advanced manufacturing industry centers on aerospace, maritime and life sciences. There is a lack of qualified applicants to “fill critical positions,” he added, and CAMPS advances several programmatic responses.
The Military To Manufacturing Pathway
The Military to Manufacturing (M2M) Career Pathways program partners with military branches to “identify and promote manufacturing opportunities for transitioning veterans because they are already trained,” but need to fine-tune existing skills for new jobs, said McLaughlin. He added that employers are also working with high schools and community colleges to accent that manufacturing is a viable career pathway, providing “good family-wage jobs.”
GM Nameplate is the largest manufacturing employer in the city of Seattle. The company is a custom component manufacturer for the aerospace, appliance, automotive, cosmetics, electronics and medical industries. The President of GM Nameplate’s Seattle division is Brad Root. He said CAMPS’ M2M veterans program has been especially helpful for his company because “a lot of the skills that veterans have coming out of the military line up well with manufacturing.”
Root said GM Nameplate has not struggled filling jobs, and that also stems from its encouragement of qualified family and friend hiring. “Our absolute best recruiters, without a doubt, are our current employees,” said Root.
Tuition Reimbursement Programs
GM Nameplate utilizes tuition reimbursement to promote internally. Root said this is often the case for tool and die makers. “They are really hard to come by, so we take people with a very strong mechanical aptitude and we decide to make an investment in them, and try to turn them into tool and die makers,” said Root.
The company primarily sends chosen workers to North Seattle and South Seattle Colleges to get the appropriate certificate, and reimburses the employee for tuition as long as they are maintaining passing grades.
Apprenticeships are another tack. Aspiring manufacturing workers can enroll in the state funded Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) program, according to McLaughlin. AJAC works with companies to identify potential employees “with the interest and aptitude” to enroll in the two-to-four-year program.
“They are working, earning a wage and getting training, both on the job and…in the classroom through community colleges, which carry all of the credentials,” said McLaughlin.
The Boeing Connection
McLaughlin said Snohomish and King County are opportune for advanced manufacturing because of Boeing’s production backlog and continuous hiring process. Last year, Boeing opened a new wing manufacturing plant in Everett, which brought “brand new jobs” the company “will have to fill with people coming from other parts of Boeing, or completely off the street.”
One member of CAMPS is Alliance Packaging, a Renton-based corrugated box factory. General Manager Scott Younger said, “Right here in Puget Sound…in a way, manufacturing is being hurt by the success of the overall economy. Because the local Seattle economy is doing so well, costs are rising…for good workers…for land” and so, “activities that do not produce as much value have a tendency to suffer.”
The addition of new, high-value manufacturing companies often forces a lower-valued specialty to move to an area with lower labor costs, which is one of the main drains on manufacturing in the northwest, according to Younger.
Younger added, “On the plus side for manufacturing, there’s also a tremendous concentration of highly educated workers who bring in new products, new ideas, new inventions.”
The Future Is Now
Preparing for the future is key to manufacturing’s success. GM Nameplate’s Root said, “In my workforce, if I want to run more automation, I have to think who will run” it “and what sort of education they need… do they need to be computer literate…have a basic understanding of electronics and computer-aided design (CAD) and programming?”
Root said, “We have more automation today than 10 years ago, and that trend will just continue. You will always need people, but the skillset for people will change.”