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How to Solve Manufacturing's Talent Problem
American manufacturing has a talent shortage. What should we do about it?
I’ve lived in the American midwest for 25 years, and I’ve seen more rusted out, empty factories than I can count. Some Rust Belt towns were built around factories, and losing them meant losing a vital economic center of their community. Many once thriving places have corroded into poverty, poor health, opioid addiction.
But this post isn’t about the factories that closed, it’s about the ones that are still open, and the ones that plan to open soon. Manufacturing still makes up 11% of US GDP, and employs millions of people. US manufacturing output and employment is set to continue growing as the world focuses on localizing supply chains. At least in America, there is a lot of talk about re-shoring manufacturing, particularly in areas like semiconductors, aerospace, and defense. The federal government has put weight behind this movement with the CHIPS Act, and big players in industries like EV batteries, automotive, and semiconductors are making major investments in American production capacity.
All of this capital investment is great, but there’s an elephant in the room. We can throw money at American manufacturing, but do we have the necessary manufacturing talent & workforce to make it happen? And if we have the people, do those people have the will to actually execute on an effort to advance the American industrial base? This is an open question, but in this post, I’ll focus on one aspect of the problem: public opinion.
Whenever very smart and motivated minds have gotten together to push an official ‘narrative’ on behalf of a company or country, they embark on a meticulous and broad scale PR campaign. Nations do it during wartime, the US did it in a small way with the ‘learn to code’ initiative, and ad men across the ages have used it to accomplish business goals.
I will assert that the American manufacturing industry’s labor problem is partially a PR problem. I’ll pull together some history so that we understand how we got here, I’ll also share some numbers about the current state of the American workforce, and explore why we have such a shortage of manufacturing workers. Finally, you’ll watch me wrestle with the question of whether or not the effort to convince Americans to work in manufacturing is actually worth it.
Many young people see manufacturing as a career path to avoid because:
There are few widely known models of successful American manufacturing professionals or entrepreneurs in recent memory.
Hollywood makes manufacturing look horrible.
Their social circle and family might look down on the manufacturing profession.
The best financial opportunities for young Americans have been (and still are) in technology and finance.
After we explain how we got here, I’ll lay out some things that American manufacturing businesses can do to inspire a new generation to enter the field:
Making manufacturing cool
againfor maybe the first time ever through media. In particular: narrative media and independent media (i.e. influencer media).
Addressing the competitive labor marketplace for what it is, and responding with actually competitive pay, career advancement opportunities, and quality treatment. Give manufacturing employees a reason to proudly tell their family and friends about what they do.
Create educational opportunities beyond trade schools or 4 year degrees. Create the ‘coding bootcamps’ for skilled manufacturing work, and help people understand what a manufacturing career path looks like.
Tap into the dejected, demotivated mass of young American men.
But first, a little history.
In the late 2000s, Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, had seen the outsourcing of many manufacturing jobs, and was worried. He watched the rise of the American computer hardware industry during his tenure from the 1960s to the early 2000s. In that period of time, he watched total manufacturing employment in the sector fall dramatically, while companies in Silicon Valley exploded in value. You can argue that there were clear economic reasons for this. At the time, Asia had already developed a reputation for being a world leader at building electronics, and the Valley had begun to focus more on software than hardware. But as a staunch believer in the importance of a jobs centric economy, Grove didn’t like what he was seeing. He saw that America had developed a belief that its manufacturing base was inferior to the rest of the world, but he didn’t think that this was true. Consider this interview from 2011:
Interviewer: For that [manufacturing] to be more feasible in the U.S., what needs to occur here?
Grove: “I think the biggest enemy of manufacturing in the U.S. is the pseudo-knowledge that America is a bad place for manufacturing. This perception will keep manufacturing from happening and thereby ensure that the reality will fulfill the prophecy. I think for every example where companies, states, cities, governmental agencies do well on this issue, our government should find ways of drumming it into the consciousness of people who are considering building a plant or who are ready to enter a career which is not manufacturing-based. It is probably best to look at this as a major brand campaign.”
That final line is key - ‘it is probably best at look at this as a major brand campaign.’ This is the core idea we’ll explore throughout this post.
Money Alone Won’t Solve The Problem
Outsourcing might have been about cost in the beginning, but now, the problem actually might be more of a lack of manufacturing skill. Today’s Shenzhen is better at producing electronics than the US ever was. Intel was once the greatest semiconductor manufacturing company in the world, but TSMC has surpassed them. I don’t think they’ve surpassed them because TSMC workers are willing to work for lower pay than Intel employees. TSMC seems to be just better at manufacturing.
Let’s revisit some more wisdom from Grove from this piece in the NYT back in 2016:
“Mr. Grove contrasted the start-up phase of a business, when uses for new technologies are identified, with the scale-up phase, when technology goes from prototype to mass production. Both are important. But only scale-up is an engine for job growth — and scale-up, in general, no longer occurs in the United States. “Without scaling,” he wrote, “we don’t just lose jobs — we lose our hold on new technologies” and “ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.”
We should reflect on that last quote. Without manufacturing work “we don’t just lose jobs… we ultimately damage our ability to innovate.”
Elon Musk has said many times that the hard part about what he’s done at SpaceX and Tesla has been manufacturing. There are so many details that come into play with advanced manufacturing, that the best theoretical design of a product is nothing unless you can produce it at scale. A truly well designed product is both an amazing product, and a product that can be manufactured effectively. When you completely separate these processes - when you remove the designer and engineer from the manufacturing process, those engineers lose the access to that process, and thus may be less effective at designing things that can actually be taken to market.
As I wrote in Manufacturing and Intellectual Dark Matter, all of this is not just a matter of capital allocation. It’s a matter of knowledge. Cultural, implicit knowledge that can take generations to build and develop. It can be built, but a culture must want to build it.
You Can’t Just Flip a Switch
So, with manufacturing jobs in higher demand in the United States than they’ve been in decades, we need to address something:
Most Americans don’t want to work in manufacturing.
The industry has a talent shortage. According to a report from Forbes, the American textile industry is short 20% of the labor that they need, and the metal fabrication business in the US is projected to have 400,000 fewer skilled workers than they need by 2024. The CHIPS Act is bringing billions of dollars in capital expenditure to the American semiconductor manufacturing industry, but staffing these plants with skilled workers is going to be a challenge. Morris Chang, the founder of TSMC, even called the efforts to produce chips in the US an ‘exercise in futility.’
There are so many reasons given for this, and you’ll get different answers depending on who you ask. If you ask most people who have gone to an elite university, they’ll probably look at you funny if you insinuate that they should go work in manufacturing. They might tell you something like - “I didn’t go to Harvard to work in a factory.” When you suggest that they could get paid a lot as a manufacturing engineer, they’ll probably point to the fact that they can make double the money working at Google or on Wall Street instead. If you ask the average Gen Xer or Baby Boomer (especially those from middle America), they’ll tell you that ‘people just don’t want to work any more’ - they’re lazy. But then if you ask those same people what kind of job they want their kid to have, they’d probably tell you lawyer, doctor, banker, or software engineer. And if you ask the average Gen Z or Millenial (even the ones who didn’t get into their dream school), they’d tell you that factories seem like places that dreams go to die, and that their parents never told them that it was a good idea to work in a factory (that’s why you ‘stay in school’).
From my point of view, manufacturing is a very respectable, honest, and really important area of the economy to work in. But the industry is horrible at selling itself, and it shows. Most parents dissuade their kids from working in it, and the kids themselves believe that they have better options. With this as our cultural backdrop, how the hell are we actually going to make use of the billions of dollars we throw at manufacturing? Sure, educational programs will help, but not if people still view the industry in a negative light.
No Such Thing as A Manufacturing Influencer
Trying to become a professional YouTuber/online creator isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually really amazing that the possible space of careers is so wide today. It creates opportunities for people to do what they love, and shouldn’t be belittled. It’s also not surprising that these professions are what come to mind if we think about how the average young American spends their time. The average American teen spends 2.5 hours a day on social media, according to this report. Who are they seeing most on these social platforms? The people who have made a living off of them!
We should keep in mind that not every ‘influencer’ is like a Kardashian of the Paul brothers. People might follow their favorite chef, their favorite entrepreneur, or their favorite engineer. What I don’t see very often are manufacturing influencers (there seem to be some, but far, far less than what you’d find for other industries). YouTube is a little better though. Because manufacturing and hardware are such physical things, it’s often easy to put a camera on it. YouTube is full of factory tours, tear downs, and great content. But is it enough?
There are very few ‘models’ that a young American can emulate when it comes to manufacturing. Even for people who want to become tech founders, the people they look up to most might be Larry Page or Jack Dorsey - both of whom made their money in software. Elon Musk has been a game changer in this regard. He’s been on the record many, many times trying to highlight the value (and difficulty) of manufacturing. But a lot of people in startups seem to think that Elon is a unicorn - that he shouldn’t be copied because it’s ‘too hard’ to build capital intensive companies. And if you think about how most of Silicon Valley has gotten rich in the last 2 decades, it has been through software. There’s no wonder that they’d say things like this. Software is all they know. Elon is not enough as far as inspiration goes. People can only emulate what they see - and there is a huge dearth of examples that show desirable lives centered around manufacturing.
Hollywood Makes Manufacturing Look Horrible
Feeling down about the state of US manufacturing talent? Ah, how about Detropia to lift your spirits?
Or how about this wonderfully optimistic scene in Rudy, where our protagonist’s best friend dies in a steel mill explosion?
Hollywood has movies and TV Shows that make people want to become astronauts, professional athletes, doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, bankers, and fighter pilots. But where are the stories of the heroes who built the US industrial base? Surely there’s something we can highlight. China seems to understand this, and is currently producing a new show that follows a protagonist that works to build the Chinese semiconductor manufacturing industry into a world leader.
The closest I’ve seen any American production come to this is this documentary that looks like it’s from the History Channel called War Factories. In several of the episodes, it tells the story of places like the Kaiser Shipyards and Willow Run who played a critical role in the Allied war effort. Seeing old footage of Willow Run’s Arsenal of Democracy in action - with the B-24 bombers rolling off the assembly line - is really inspiring. How It’s Made is also not bad - but it’s low quality in comparison to other TV shows like it.
There is, however, an increasing number of independent documentarians who are showing manufacturing in a positive light. I’ve seen a few YouTube channels produce high quality independent videos (if you can find them).
This from Futurology is a good example:
Here are a few other good manufacturing series you can find on Youtube:
Media, especially video, has a way of changing people’s focus & perception. The industry needs an army of independent creators and media producers to feature the importance and day to day work of manufacturing.
Parents Don’t Want Their Kids to Work In Manufacturing
Parents want their kids to work in STEM carriers, but people don’t seem to associate manufacturing with STEM, despite modern manufacturing being filled with advanced technology. They also seem to believe that a strong manufacturing base is an important thing (81% of Americans said that they believed it to be important via this survey), but don’t necessarily want their kids to work in the industry. People want the next generation to work in manufacturing - just as long as it’s other peoples’ kids doing the work that they think is repetitive, dangerous, and ‘low skill.’
The response from Gen X/Baby Boomers on this issue is, like we said earlier, ‘young people don’t want to work anymore.’ But many of these Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are the same people who outsourced manufacturing in the first place. They also probably encouraged their kids to ‘stay in school’ so that they didn’t have to work in a factory.
So maybe the truth of the matter is much more complicated. Maybe people are just as interested in work as they always have been. Perhaps it’s just that no one wants to work for you anymore, or that no one wants to work in your industry. This stigma can be corrected, and we’ll talk more about it later.
Most of The Money Has Been in Software & Finance
The truth about the last 30 years of the American economy has been that the highest wages you could earn were in areas like finance and software. There are many well known stories of people getting rich on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. And to highlight media’s role in this again: we have movies that show this in action: Wall Street, Margin Call, and Wolf of Wall Street in finance, and Super Pumped, the Internship, and the Social Network in tech. These movies aren’t all meant to paint these industries in a positive light, but they create models of desire. They give people reference points for what to want.
A lot of people, when they think about manufacturing jobs, I think seem to only consider jobs that are meant to be somewhat ‘expendable’ - things like forklift operators, assembly workers, etc. However, many manufacturing jobs that go beyond the entry level do have high earning potential. It’s just hard to identify what the career path looks like to get there.
It’s also the case that you’re likely to just be paid far more by working in software or on Wall Street than in other industries like manufacturing. The truth is that many talented Americans would need to take a pay cut to enter manufacturing. Because of this, it seems like manufacturing as an industry either needs to pay its engineers and managers a LOT more to compete with tech and finance, or at minimum provide the clarity young people need to realize that, should they work hard and improve their skillset, they too can also earn a lot of money in manufacturing.
So How Does Manufacturing Fix These Problems?
Some of these issues are simply problems of perception and PR, but the fact that the manufacturing career path doesn’t look as promising as many other options is at least somewhat rooted in reality. So where does the industry go from here?
Making manufacturing cool
again for maybe the first time ever
The truth is that manufacturing might be much different than the world made it seem for Gen Z and Millennials. It also might just feel like more honest work than being a corporate drone at company HQ. You usually don’t have to sit behind a desk and make PowerPoints, you can walk the factory floor, and you can get paid to work with your hands. You’re producing things for the economy, and you might even be contributing to national security and defense. This desire to create things for a living is, I think, part of why many young people have learned to code. It allows people to feel like they are earning their money by producing things. It feels good, and gives you a sense of accomplishment and craftsmanship.
When you watch War Factories and see those men and women cranking out tanks and P-51 Mustangs and warships, you can’t help but feel that they were able to derive unique sense of meaning from their work. They even called Willow Run in Detroit the Arsenal of Democracy. The American manufacturing industry needs to capture this same spirit again today in its efforts to recruit young talent to work in the industry.
Additionally, manufacturing today is filled with much more advanced tooling. There are advanced robots and high tech pieces of machinery everywhere. There is skilled work in manufacturing that no one told young people about, and it’s actually a really interesting area for young engineers to work in. Things like this are also a good idea:
Models Of Manufacturing Desire
Why have I brought up ‘models’ so much? Well, I’m using the word ‘model’ in the spirit of Rene Girard. The father of mimetic theory, Girard did a lot of groundbreaking work which can help us understand why we want what we want.
Girard believes that we humans don’t actually want things in isolation. We want them because we see other people wanting them. Our desires are largely imitative - for better or worse. The more people who decide to go work in software startups, big tech, or finance, the more other people will want to follow in their footsteps. It’s very rare that you hear someone finishing up their undergrad who wants to work in a manufacturing or industrials role. They want what their peers want, and sometimes what their parents want for them. Their peers might want to work in big tech if they’re more conventional, or to be an influencer if they’re willing to put themselves out there. Their parents want them to work on Wall Street, or in medical school or law school.
Manufacturing has very little models of desire at all. Outside of maybe Elon Musk, most people (including many people working in technology) can’t think of a single famous person involved heavily in manufacturing. And even in the case of Elon, people don’t even think of him as a manufacturing titan. They see him as the rocket guy or the electric cars guy. If the industry wants to make itself cool, it’s going to have to have encourage its people to be more public about what life is like in manufacturing, and aggressively highlight every success story.
Meet the Labor Market Where It’s At
Corporate America, especially in the case of industrials and manufacturing, seems to be run by accountants. To the accountant, humans are cost centers: overhead walks on two legs. The messed up thing here though, is that these companies who fight to pay their boots on the ground labor - i.e. their ‘essential’ labor - very little tend to have a ridiculous amount of managerial bloat. If I were Czar for a day, I would cut the amount of managerial staff in corporate America in half, and use the extra money to pay the people doing the ‘boots on the ground’ work more. This will absolutely never happen because no manager ever wanted to fire themselves (or another manager). But startups and mid sized companies have more control. If you have yet to be captured by the managerial industrial complex, you should strongly consider what it would look like to pay your manufacturing workforce more money. Do you want people working for your company to be unable to build families or buy a home? Do you want them to have to upskill on the side and plot for years to get out of the situation they’re in at your company? If not, you should try to find a way to make working at your business work for them.
These companies should also create career ladders and be extremely public about what these ladders look like. Most people in tech and finance have a sense of the career path for a SaaS salesperson, software engineer, or investment banker. These things are broadcast widely across the industry, and make it clear for people that a) they can reach the upper levels if they perform well and b) if they get there, they’ll make a lot of money. It’s very hard to find information online about what a manufacturing career path looks like. It was never discussed in any formal education environment I was in, and I doubt that many people I know can describe what it looks like either. This feels like a really big problem, because it’s perpetuating a stigma that manufacturing jobs are dead end jobs.
So lay out a vision for the people who you want to work for you. Give them a way to build a life and a career while working at your company. Not by providing free lunch and talking about how your staff can ‘bring their whole self to work,’ but with actually good compensation and opportunities for growth.
Create Educational Opportunities Outside of What Already Exists
Trade schools are good, and should be expanded and promoted more often for people who want to learn to weld and other hard, physical skills. But based on much of the research I’ve done, we not only need more people to understand welding and machining, but things like 6 Sigma, finance, robotics, IT, and advanced operations. This report from Lightcast makes the argument that the manufacturing workforce of today needs to have one foot firmly planted in traditional manufacturing skills, and one foot in the future of technology. It seems to me that, in this area, there is a disconnect. When it comes to educational pipelines, it looks like you can either go learn to be a machinist in a trade school or learn about advanced operations or industrial automation practices at a traditional university. What if we created educational tracks that addressed the needs of today’s manufacturers to have a multivariate skillset?
Honestly, if there were a school that gave you a skillset that straddled hands on manufacturing work while simultaneously giving you an advanced practical engineering education at the same time, this would probably attract a lot of attention. My guess is that some mechanical engineering programs will get you close, and that the average machinist ends up doing a kind of advanced engineering study on the job. But nonetheless, this seems like it could be better.
There are a few companies attacking this problem now, and the best one I’ve seen so far is OpenX. I have no link or affiliation with their team, but everything about what they’re doing - from the website branding to the set of courses they offer to their approach of going to employers first to identify the skills needed to work in these large companies - I have a feeling that they’re going to find a lot of success. If this post leaves you inspired to go work in manufacturing, I’d recommend checking out one of their courses.
Tap into the dejected, demotivated mass of American men
A major phenomenon that’s occurred over the last 20 years is that a large number of prime aged (25-54 year old) men have simply decided to not participate in the workforce at all. There is much debate as to why this is: maybe they’re addicted to drugs, lazy, playing video games all day, etc. Some argue that part of the reason is due to a loss in manufacturing jobs that used to be relatively high earning which did not require a college degree. In some cases, these jobs paid a high enough salary and included benefits that allowed these men to be the sole breadwinner for a family. The total number of these roles has shrunk dramatically over time.
I’m not so sure that we can point to any single cause for the decline in the American male workforce participation rate. But what I do think is that the manufacturing industry has an opportunity - with its hundreds of thousands of job vacancies - to provide sustainable careers to this mass of men who have checked out. Catalyzing this group cannot be done via brow beating and sneering from ivory towers. It requires meeting these men where they are with media and opportunities that inspire them to act. It’s like the old quote:
“If you wish to build a ship, do not divide the men into teams and send them to the forest to cut wood. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.”
Don’t demean these men further by calling them lazy and further atomizing them with menial temp work. Inspire them to become greater. To build a new America. Literally.
Should We Even Engage In a Manufacturing PR Battle?
An effective public relations campaign can shift culture in dramatic ways. The US has used it during world wars, we’ve seen it used in regard to the Ukraine war, and it’s been used to do things like convince women to smoke en mass and to get the American populace to start using toothpaste. The real question of any ethical person thinking about this kind of mass marketing should be: is it good to attempt to sway the public in a given direction? In the case of WWII and toothpaste: I think so. But with getting women to smoke at an industrial scale - not so much.
To be fair, I’m still learning a lot about this topic myself. I don’t work in manufacturing, and my only interaction with the industry has been with family who have worked directly inside of it. I believe that manufacturing is indeed important to America, but part of me wonders if the reality is that these roles are mostly destined to be low wage and low fulfillment jobs by their very nature. I hope that this is not true, but it certainly could be.
I have a few open questions for people working in manufacturing. If you are reading this and are working in the industry, I’d love an answer:
Is bulk of the ‘talent’ you’re missing really just low skill labor? (i.e. the equivalent to an Amazon warehouse worker level of complexity?) If so, why should we all not just invest as heavily as possible in robotics, as Amazon is doing today? Or should we just accept the fact that someone is going to have to do this work, and if America is unwilling, we’ll need to find another solution - be it immigration or outsourcing some of the supply chain to more friendly nations than China.
What does the actual career path look like for an ambitious person entering manufacturing? Are these jobs actually dead end jobs, or are there career paths that can eventually lead someone to a lot of financial success that is roughly on par with FAANG/Wall Street levels? My guess is that, even at the highest skill levels, it’s not likely that manufacturing will ever pay as well as software or finance, but my question is - how much worse is the economic opportunity? 10% lower pay? 50% lower pay? etc?
Intellectual honesty is important. If manufacturing can provide the answer to a lot of our American woes, and it really could provide high quality economic opportunities (i.e. the kind you can raise a family on in modern day America), then I’m all in on using an effective, nationwide PR campaign to sell the public on the idea that manufacturing matters and that it’s an excellent career path. But if it isn’t - if manufacturing jobs are dangerous, low pay, and entirely better served by automation or outsourcing to cheap labor economies, then we should just embrace that reality today and invest as heavily as we possibly can in robotics, and seek out friendly, aligned nations for our cheap labor needs.
In any case, the world needs to continue innovating in industrials. I just want to do what I can to make sure that the free world is the one at the forefront of the innovation.
Thanks for reading.
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