WASHINGTON — More than 80% of U.S. manufacturers say they cannot find enough qualified workers to meet customer demands, according to an industry study released Tuesday.
After losing 3.4 million factory jobs since 1998, employers are struggling to find enough high-skilled machinists, technicians and engineers to keep production lines humming, the National Assn. of Manufacturers said.
Of more than 800 manufacturers surveyed, 13% reported a severe shortage of qualified workers and 68% said they experienced a moderate shortage.
"The survey exposes a widening gap between the dwindling supply of skilled workers in America and the growing technical demands of the modern
manufacturing workplace," said association President John Engler.
The report, released by the association, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting, found 83% of manufacturers were struggling to serve customers because there were not enough qualified workers.
Some struggled to produce enough to meet customer demand, whereas others could not meet targets for productivity or customer service.
The exodus of baby boomers from the U.S. workforce, a negative stereotype of manufacturing and a drop in the number of American students pursuing technical or engineering degrees are fueling the problem, Engler said.
The news Monday that General Motors Corp. would be cutting 30,000 jobs does not help the industry's image, but Engler said the United States remained a manufacturing powerhouse — especially in innovative and high value-added production.
Lowering costs, as foreign automakers have managed to do, will ensure even labor-intensive products can be built here, he said.
"There will be a lot of people building cars in America for a long time," Engler said. When manufacturers struggle to find enough qualified workers, Jeffrey Owens, president of Peoria, Ill.-based Advanced Technology Services, helps fill the gap.
"It's a pretty significant problem," said Owens, whose 1,500 workers provide factory maintenance for heavy machinery maker Caterpillar Inc. and industrial and aerospace conglomerate Honeywell International Inc., among others.
"A lot of people are retiring who are extremely talented, good people, and there's nobody coming in behind them…. The younger generation doesn't consider manufacturing a viable career alternative," Owens said.
Although the image of backbreaking labor in steel plants or on assembly lines may be what most Americans still think of when they imagine factory work, Owens said the modern workplace was often more about computers.
"You really use your brain a lot more than you use your back," he said. "There are some guys that can really work magic with the machinery to keep it running. Sometimes it's more of an art than a science."
"If the pink slip doesn't fit,