Much of American manufacturing is caught in a cruel contrast: Workers looking for jobs in many areas can't find them. But in other parts of the country, factories with vacancies can't find people to fill them.
This economic quandary stems from a social shift. High school graduates these days aren't exactly lining up to work at factories, even though pay on modern assembly lines typically starts above $15 an hour.
On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross pitched a solution — fancy booze and snacks.
"What some of the companies have been doing is literally having an open session with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres for the high school students and their parents,” Ross said at the SelectUSA Investment Summit in Washington. “So they can actually see that a factory is not a dank, dark, dangerous place where people do a lot of physical work — that the modern factory is actually a very attractive workforce environment.”
He added, “And then when they hear that, they've had a few drinks and they find out it's actually a much better paying job than they thought, it starts to change the attitude."
Ross, a billionaire investor, could have been more clear about who, exactly, should drink the alcohol. But Ross's broader point — that young people have an unfairly negative perception about blue-collar work — is widely shared.
One recent report from the Manufacturing Institute and the consulting firm Deloitte projects that the tidal wave of retiring baby boomers will create 3.5 million factory jobs over the next decade — and that about 2 million will go unfilled.
“Manufacturers have reported a sizeable gap between the talent they need to keep growing their businesses,” the authors wrote in the paper, “and the talent they can actually find.”
Today's students are more likely than ever to graduate from college, according to a 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center. Some educators say that America’s youth would be better served with more culturally acceptable options, such as technical school and apprenticeships. Both paths lead to well-paying jobs without the acquisition of loads of student debt. (The average salaries for machinist jobs are about $40,000 nationwide.)
But factory work has a bad reputation. And compared with higher education, on-the-job learning is unpopular: Only 5 percent of young people in the United States are in apprenticeships. Forty percent of millennials, meanwhile, have bachelor's degrees, Pew data shows.
According to the Manufacturing Institute’s survey, employers spend an average of 70 days trying to fill a job on the factory floor. Eighty percent said that they would raise pay above market rate to pull in talent.
Part of the challenge, the authors wrote, is “overcoming industry perception.”
Just 37 percent of respondents in the group’s 2015 poll said they would encourage their children to take a manufacturing job.
“Compensation increase can yield only marginal improvements in attracting workers,” the authors predicted, “but manufacturers also need to improve the perception of the industry in it being ‘clean and safe’ and ‘high-tech’ rather than ‘dirty and dangerous.’ ”
As U.S. factories became increasingly automated, they morphed into cleaner workplaces, industry leaders say.
Sean Monahan, an operations executive at A.T. Kearney, a global consulting firm, wrote in an essay this year that machines are taking over the roles people once associated with factory work.
“Robotics are automating most of the ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ tasks,’ he noted, “and increasingly collaborative robots are moving out of the cage to work side by side with operators.”
Not that workers never face harm on the job. By the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest count, “fatal injuries” in private manufacturing increased slightly from 2014 to 2015 (349 to 353). That’s down from 416 in 2003.
Still, plants today are less polluted than factories of the past.
Ronna Kawsky, who leads technical education efforts for Warsaw Community High School in northern Indiana, said students train on machines that clean themselves with vegetable oil.
Parents, she said, haven’t quite grasped that many facilities have made environmentally friendly leaps.
“You want your kids to have a better life than you did, and the miscommunication was college was going to give you that,” Kawsky said. “It has taken several years for us to realize that is not true. There are plenty of people waiting tables that are college-educated.”