Workforce Gap Grows as Boomers Retire

Manufacturers are having difficulty finding skilled workers. Many are trying creative approaches to close the gap.

The manufacturing industry is experiencing growing pressure as it becomes more difficult to find available talent to run operations. A perfect storm of issues has formed, making it increasingly difficult to find skilled labor. One of the biggest challenges is the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. Many of the industry’s highest skilled workers are now beginning to leave. The number of Boomers retiring will increase precipitously over the next five years.

Rockwell Automation, workforce skills gap, employment, manufacturing, Fortech, Direct Recruiters
Building the right team of skilled workers is a puzzle that is getting harder to complete for manufacturers. Image courtesy of Rockwell Automation.

We’re also experiencing nearly full employment. The number of new unemployment claims is at a 50-year low. Employment hasn’t been this strong since the end of the dot-com era nearly 20 years ago. Add to that the misconception that factories are dirty, grimy, and loud – thus turning off college grads.

This topic will be the focus of the panel discussion, Understanding and Closing the Workforce Skills Gap, in Cleveland at the Advanced Design and Manufacturing Expo, March7-8, 2018.

Bye Bye Boomers

For year, manufacturing experts have been warning about the “coming” retirement of Baby Boomer plant engineers. That day is now here. “The baby boomers are retiring in a steady flow. Soon it will be a tsunami,” David Iyoha, director of software solutions at Fortech, told Design News. “Production goes down as manufacturers lose their experts. The really big problem is the loss of knowledge when people leave. How to you hold the tribal knowledge?”

Iyoha suggested the solution may involve smart manufacturing tools. “How to you transfer that knowledge from the retiring workers? Technology has a very good way of doing that.”

The big challenge is that there is not a hoard of qualified workers ready to fill the retirees’ jobs. “Between 22% and 25% of the manufacturing experts are going to retire soon, and there is not this pull of talent out there to augment this pool drain,” Brian Fortney, global business manager for Training Services at   told Design News. “Manufacturers are not addressing this with the right amount of energy. They have to get into apprenticeship programs and talk about the quality of careers in the manufacturing space. They also have to give their current employees the opportunity to upskill.”

Do Grads Want to Work in a Factory?

One of the difficulties of attracting plant workers come from the misperception of an unpleasant work environment. “The challenge for manufacturers in the US isn’t foreign manufacturing, it’s the high school guidance counselor,” said Fortney. “They don’t understand that manufacturing is high tech. The plants are not dark and dangerous.”

As there is not a line of willing workers at the plant doors, manufacturers are considering changing their qualifications for workers. The four-year degree requirement for plant engineers may begin to erode. “Manufacturers should consider taking someone with a two-year degree instead of a four-year degree. Or bring in those with nontraditional backgrounds,” said Fortney. “Veterans are great. They’re resilient, and they work well under pressure.”

Manufacturers may shift their hiring from seeking those who are qualified to those who show a willingness to learn. “I have a lot of clients who say if you have someone with talent and no degree, that’s fine. Or if they have the aptitude, we’re train them,” Josh Olgin, director of Robotics Practice at Direct Recruiters, told Design News. “Skills trump education. A robot organization hired a military vet who was willing to learn C programming. Some clients absolutely need a four-year degree; 60% want college degree, but 35% say the just want the skillset.”

Can Automation Mitigate the Problem?

Iyoha believes the skills gap with manufacturers has become a serious issue that calls for real change. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation – something close to panic. Maybe five or ten years ago, it wasn’t a problem, but it is now,” said Iyoha. “I’m seeing a lot of different approaches to solving the problem. Some manufacturers are using high school students. Some community programs are offering a manufacturing class. I’m seeing people using cobots, and I hear anecdotes of success with cobots.”



The idea of using technology to offset a highly skilled engineer is beginning to catch on. This is especially true now that many smart manufacturing tools come with embedded intelligence. Robots used to require original programming. Now many just need to be configured using a touchscreen. “Manufacturers are throwing things against the wall to see what works. All kinds of things are getting tested,” said Iyoha. “I’m seeing a lot of smart manufacturing solving a lot of problems with workforce development. If smart manufacturing is embraced by manufacturers, it will be a good solution.”



For the second year,  Advanced Design & Manufacturing Cleveland  is back at the Huntington Convention Center, March 7-8, 2018.  Register today  for loads of free, can’t-miss education focusing on Smart Manufacturing, 3D Printing, Battery technologies, Medtech, and more!


Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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