Where the Jobs Are, or Why It’s Hard to Recruit in the Manufacturing Space

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May 29, 2014

It was a casual remark that caught my attention a couple years back when unemployment was stubbornly sticking around 8-9 percent and it changed the direction of my sourcing business.

“Tulsa and the surrounding area have a 4 percent unemployment rate.”

It was made to me by a business owner who was considering selling his industrial heat exchanger manufacturing and repair business — they made the kinds of things that went into things that “shook buildings when they ignited,” as he put it.

In other words, “Boom!”

Manufacturing workforces are shrinking

“If you come across any service technicians that know what they’re doing – send them in here. We have a standing order for service technicians around here.”

What I’ve come to learn about his manufacturing business and others over the last three years is while demand is growing their workforces are shrinking at alarming rates.

The average age of a highly skilled U.S. manufacturing worker is 56.

As in born around 1957-58.

As in “about to retire.”

As in they’re not making them any more.

An overlooked employment sector

Manufacturing is a seriously overlooked sector in our industry and it’s very lively and the mid section and east of the Mississippi especially hums with activity.

Manufacturing is always looking for skilled labor and I’m always sourcing inside of companies for it.

Because of the aging workforce and the fact that companies haven’t made the leap to investing in training (yet) talent is especially scarce and the smart money noses around inside other companies for workers already trained and ready to start the first day on the job.

One of the answers to increasing employment (and rising wages) in this country is to put unemployed and underemployed college graduates to work in skilled manufacturing positions; this idea hasn’t taken hold yet but sooner or later it will as Baby Boomers get sick and tired of having their boomerang children living in their basements.

According to this interesting interactive map provided by the Brookings Institution, there were 11,499,905 manufacturing jobs in the United States in 2010.

The map is fascinating because it breaks manufacturing by large and small city by total number of manufacturing jobs; by the percentage share manufacturing holds of all jobs in that city; by the share considered high tech and by the share considered moderately high-tech.

A lot of jobs to fill

In many of the cities moderately tech and high tech manufacturing clearly hold more than one-third (and in some more than one half) of all manufacturing jobs in those cities but look at what is left for the low-tech sector!

That’s a lot of what my dear friend Steve Levy likes to call shekels being paid for wages across a lot of different industries and that’s a lot of jobs!

What’s wrong with low tech?

I make my living with low tech. You don’t get much more basic than the telephone and I’m not ashamed to call myself a Luddite.

I’ll go so far as to point out the early current souring we’re seeing in our own community towards social media was preceded by an earlier souring by some in my own circle.

I’ll go out on a limb even further and state that simple, sustainable living may fuel a popularization in low-tech industries.

Recruiting in the manufacturing sector

Even if none of those (my ideal world) things come to pass, MIT believes “that the future of technology will be largely determined by end-users who will design, build, and hack their own devices, and our goal is to inspire, shape, support, and study these communities. To this end, we explore the intersection of computation, physical materials, manufacturing processes, traditional crafts, and design” and has a research group at the MIT Media Lab that integrates high and low technological materials, processes, and cultures to prove it.

All of which, in a nutshell is what I wanted to talk with you about today.

I could go on but first I’d like to get your take on manufacturing in this country.

Are you recruiting in this sector?

Have you?

What are your thoughts?

I’m sourcing in it and I’ll be happy to share my tips and techniques with you in the future about it (industrial heat exchanger service technicians that work on boilers big as buildings don’t hang out on LinkedIn in big numbers) but I’d like to hear your concerns, ideas and questions about the industry.