Industry Trends: U.S. Manufacturing Sector Needs Trained, Educated, and Skilled Workforce

Making manufacturing education great again...

The words America and Manufacturing are different now.  

Those two words used to be synonymous with one another. In the 1940’s, almost a third of U.S. Americans worked in the manufacturing sector.

While free trade and outsourcing labor to factories overseas are often cited as the main culprits, that’s not the “only truth”. Technology and automation have revolutionized our factories, and unfortunately at a pace greater than the workforce.

As difficult as the decline in American manufacturing jobs might have been to hear, manufacturing output in America has actually been on the rise, according to several news sources and industry insiders.

While the big rise in output doesn’t equal the same growth in jobs, the point is that American manufacturers are making more products—and skilled workers are needed to keep that going.

Gone are the days where a company would “carry” several extra heads as trainee’s, learning over the years from the skilled craftsman.

This ultimately creates a gap between the needs of industry and the supply of the workforce skill set.  Manufacturing is trying to address this gap, with in-house training and skills education. But with increasing pressures to meet projected margins, it is becoming more difficult for manufacturers to maintain their budgets for areas outside direct costs.

Subsequently, they are turning more and more to institutional partnering to support their need to hire an “already trained and skilled” workforce.

The Old “Assembly Line” of Manufacturing

When thinking about manufacturing, most think of working on the assembly line, chained to one spot doing endless repetition. But that isn’t necessarily true in today’s manufacturing.

One of the biggest attractions for manufacturing is the diversity of work and the potential for advancement through different paths. So, with the variety of jobs, getting into manufacturing allows workers to carve out different career paths.

The New “Assembly Line” of Manufacturing

Manufacturing offers opportunities for workers with a wide range of backgrounds. Regardless of the entry path, it’s important to understand that manufacturers seek a specific set of skills from their prospective employees.

Manufacturing education can be a great training ground, through partnership with educational institutions, viewed through the lens of production. This introduces training within the structure of education, imparting documented skill learning in a way that considers manufacturing first.  Once that skill set is developed, you’ve provided competencies that can be utilized anywhere.

Some of the entry paths available within the manufacturing sector include:

Maintenance, Assembly, Training, Quality, Engineering, Management, Sales, Human resources

So what are today’s Manufacturers looking for?

Skills and traits that can help launch a career in manufacturing;


Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills are playing a huge role in the manufacturing hiring process. Companies are looking for a worker who can apply the right practices, techniques, procedures, and equipment to the design and manufacture of various goods and services. This means the manufacturing worker needs to reflect the ability toward these advanced skills.

Diversity Teamwork

Manufacturing requires workers to communicate with each other, more than ever, and to relay information effectively. According to a Stanford study, it’s not necessarily about having specific teams...rather, it’s more about having an environment that supports teamwork.


Manufacturing positions now require knowledge of a wide array of methods and procedures.  Subsequently, workers must have ability to learn, and flexibility on job tasks.

Critical thinking

Manufacturing workers must be able to use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to difficult situations.

Advanced skills and advanced critical thinking to work beyond what was previously considered acceptable, is what workers need to have to sustain this level of innovation;

Innovation and creativity are necessary to:

  1. Spur growth,

  2. Solve problems,

  3. Develop new products.

Real-Time problem solving

Both equipment technicians and operators need to know how to identify a problem and develop a solution to that problem. If there is a production problem with a piece of equipment, the operator must have the ability to explain exactly what is happening — or not happening — with that segment of production. The equipment technician can then use this information to troubleshoot and fix the equipment.

In a manufacturing facility (especially a lean manufacturing facility), a problem clearly stated is considered a problem half solved. It is important to take problem solving seriously, so teams can identify how they intend to come up with an effective solution.

Foreign language

To compete on a global stage, companies need employees who can communicate with people around the world. One way to differentiate yourself in today’s manufacturing job market is to have technical and managerial skills combined with fluency in dominant languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Spanish (and the list continues to grow).

With globalization in full swing, being able to communicate in other languages makes a worker much more valuable to an employer.

Trends and Direction that could help Educational Institutions, Manufacturers, and the Workforce:

What direction is Manufacturing heading:

  1. Manufacturers are taking ownership of training and development programs

  2. Strengthening of partnerships with local academic institutions

  3. Depth of training process being embraced

1. Manufacturers are taking ownership of training and development programs

  • The good news is that, according to a recent survey, nearly half of manufacturers say they have a plan in place to address their need to hire, train, and retain skilled workers. However, that means that the other half still don’t have a plan.

  • Finding and developing a good system is not an overnight fix, and will need support from outside sources.

  • With examples all around of companies struggling with workforce development issues, taking ownership of training and development programs today will reduce risk of potential skilled workforce shortages.  Subsequently, supporting a strategy of continued Global competitiveness.

2. Strengthening of partnerships with local academic institutions

  • High schools, community colleges and vocational schools are playing a pivotal role in workforce development. In many communities throughout the US, these academic institutions have formed partnerships with local manufacturers to address the skilled talent gap. Partnering allows for real-world manufacturing exposure, where students of all ages and backgrounds, learn both the hard and soft skills needed to succeed in the manufacturing sector.

3. Depth of training process

  • The process of training has become much more sophisticated. Years ago, companies might check a box to indicate training had been completed. Today there is a lot more regulation and documentation.

  • It’s necessary to validate that knowledge has been transferred, and not just that a class has been completed. Manufacturers want to know that an employee is able to apply the knowledge or skills provided in the training.

  • Organizations are looking at employees individually and building customized training programs specifically to their strengths and weaknesses.

Training is no longer one size fits all

All of this global competition is increasing the need for improvement of the whole workforce skills management system and adding pressure on manufacturers to keep pace.

To address this, Employers and Educational Institutions will have an increasing need to band together as a team, hiring manufacturing subject matter experts [SME] to supplement where needed.  These SMEs will act as the coupling agent between the manufacturers and the academic institutions, to build the framework. SMEs can be the best cost effective solution to bridge the gap for contact, connection, and implementation of the strategy.  This defined strategy (framework) will assure manufacturers that employees are being trained and qualified with the skills to meet the job requirements at the performance levels needed to meet business objectives, and assure the documentation exists to demonstrate the training was completed and verified.

The defined strategy of the framework process is to create:

  1. Comprehensive, cooperative, and meaningful training programs.

  2. Training guidelines for the workforce; in the “classroom”

    • The classroom may now be considered at the training/education facility, at the workplace with surrogate instructors, or in the virtual classroom online.

  3. Curriculum Mapping and Documenting training outcomes

    • Syllabus, course outline, instruction path, etc.

    • CEU’s, certificates, earned credits, etc.

    • Transcripts, award letters, diplomas, etc.

    • Training comprehension verified.

With the pressures that manufacturers face meeting production, customer demands, and financial performance along with maintaining a talented, trained, and skilled workforce, the need for partnership is even more critical than ever.  The key is to provide a solid, documented training program that ties directly to business goals, ensuring a solid return on investment and sustained competitive advantage for years to come.

These are the essential variables to the long term success of the Manufacturers, the Educational Institutions that support them, and the viability of the Workforce.

Kurt Zimmerman

Executive Vice President

Office: 800-616-7382


kurt zimmerman