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Upskilling US manufacturing: How technology is disrupting America’s industrial labor force

Key findings from the PwC survey of US manufacturers on talent

Manufacturers are racing to lure in tech-savvy talent, or upskill existing forces, in a push to harness disruptive manufacturing technologies, from new apps and wearable tech, to 3D printing, robotics and virtual reality, to name a few. We surveyed 120 US manufacturers on how advanced manufacturing technologies are impacting the workforce dynamics. Some key findings include:

Skills shortages are not uniformly felt today: 33% of manufacturers say they have no or only a little difficulty in hiring talent to exploit advanced manufacturing technologies, while 44% have ‘moderate difficulty.’

Yet, skills shortage seen on horizon: 31% of manufacturers see no manufacturing skills shortage now but that there will be one in the next three years; 26% say it’s already peaked and is behind us; and 29% said it exists and will only worsen in the next three years.

Robots are not seen stealing manufacturing jobs: 37% believe that the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies will result in their hiring additional employees; 45% said it will have no impact on hiring; and 17% said it will result in hiring fewer employees.

Training in-house is the most common strategy to upskill employees in advanced manufacturing, followed by recruiting local STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students and offering outside vocational training.

Where have all the factory workers gone?

While there has been a partial recovery in the number of manufacturing jobs lost during the Great Recession, the number of 12.3 million manufacturing jobs at the end of 2015 is still roughly 14% less than the 14.4 million a decade ago.

While the industrial workforce is historically small, manufacturers are out to make it the smartest ever.

Wanted: well-educated Millennials

In 2015, a significant demographic shift occurred: Millennials became the largest cohort in the labor force, with 53.6 million (or 34% of the total workforce), eclipsing for the first time that of the GenXers. And manufacturers need them. Our survey finds that 75% of ‘factory floor’ jobs are being filled by those with post-secondary school educations.

Poaching talent from non-manufacturing sectors: an emerging trend?

More workers are looking outside their current occupation for new jobs, and manufacturers are capture new talent from outside their sector. According to our survey, 16% of new hires by manufacturers were from outside the manufacturing industry.

Who will shape advanced manufacturing: engineer or production worker?

It appears, though, that manufacturers do not agree on exactly which level of worker will take the lead on advanced manufacturing. When asked who they will rely on within their organization for using advanced manufacturing technologies, manufacturers split— with about half of manufacturers saying it would be engineers, and 40% saying the responsibility will rest on skilled production workers

Paths to building a more competitive industrial workforce

The persistent gap between openings and hires suggest that US industrial manufacturers are struggling to build the workforces they want by sticking with traditional approaches to everything from training to recruiting. Here is a look at what works today and what might come to factor more in the not-too-distant future.

Practical and widely used
- Train in the workplace. 

This is what most manufacturers do today to advance the skills in their workforces. They believe they are best placed to teach employees how to make use of new technologies, and fit them to their business needs.

Practical and increasingly in use
- Train outside of the workplace

Manufacturers are teaming up with community colleges or vocational schools to meet demand for different skills and equipment. Vendors and online courses are also expanding in this space. Progress on nationally accepted credentials across different skill sets would likely accelerate uptake.
- Recruit STEM graduates directly 
This is typically done via job fairs, well-crafted internships, and above all, productive relationships with educational institutions. The learning curve for some manufacturers’ HR may be steep. Competition for talented people in tech is fierce, and keeping up with the skill sets in demand could also be challenging.

Not widely used, but poised to grow quickly
- Hire outside of the industry 

As manufacturers invest and deploy advancing technologies, hiring from outside the sector will likely grow. Additionally, production jobs draw a significant amount of interest from job seekers outside manufacturing; manufacturing jobs requiring skills from other fields (e.g., gaming, CAD simulation, virtual reality) could draw candidates from—and compete with—other fields.

Promising if untested for the US labor market
- Apprenticeships 

This German import is gaining more adherents in the US, particularly among government officials and others who study labor trends. Meanwhile, the US government and states are making moves to support and mainstream apprenticeship programs in the manufacturing sector.

Wild cards
- Import talent from outside the US 

A majority of manufacturers we surveyed (60%) believe that the industry would be more competitive if it were easier for foreign nationals with the relevant technology skills to work in the US.
- The Maker Generation and the Gig Economy 
Manufacturers will likely be looking to makers for more than orders. They could represent a deep and growing reservoir of talent to enlist to their ranks. Tethered closely to the maker movement is the growing legions of freelancers who could be tapped for short- or long-term contract work, providing manufacturers flexibility in their talent management.

Contact us

Jeff Sorensen

Jeff Sorensen

Lead Client Partner, PwC US

Bob  Pethick

Bob Pethick

US Advisory Clients & Industries Leader, PwC US

Bobby Bono

Bobby Bono

Industrial Manufacturing Leader, PwC US

John  Karren

John Karren

Industrial Products People & Organization Leader, PwC US

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