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The aging workforce: a competitive disadvantage – the necessary actions for the manufacturing sector

Posted by Bert Maes on June 29, 2010

Daily I talk about the problems in education and the resulting catastrophes manufacturing companies are facing in the near future. But many people have to act – not only teachers and school principals. Also enterprises must take significant and necessary steps to make sure the young perceive manufacturing as an interesting and rewarding career opportunity.

A new June 2010 report “The aging workforce: responsive actions for the manufacturing sector” is showing the manufacturing company leaders the way forward.

A quick summary:

In comparison to other sectors, the manufacturing sector’s demographic profile is disproportionately composed of older workers and men. 38% of the workers is aged 40-54 year, compared to 31% in other sectors of the economy. More than others, manufacturing employers will experience a large-scale exodus of older workers in the forthcoming years. The aging of the Baby Boomer generation is likely to have a greater impact on the manufacturing sector than on other sectors.

The question is: how can enterprises attract the young workforce to counter the inevitable exit of the older workers?

The good news is that manufacturing is transforming today. Changes in technology, the use of robots, computers, programmable motion control devices, and various sensing technologies makes the industry evolve away from traditional assembly line systems towards “lean” manufacturing systems that use teams of workers to produce entire products or components, that rotate through different tasks, rather than specializing in a single task.

That means that production work in this sector can no longer rely on lower educated individuals who labor on repetitious low-skilled tasks. Machinists using machine tools such as lathes, milling machines, and grinders, to produce precision metal parts, in most of the cases produce small batches or one-of-a-kind items. They have to use their knowledge of the working properties of metals and their skill with machine tools to plan and carry out the operations needed to make machined products that meet precise specifications. More and more employees can enjoy creative work. That is the good news, which is a significant incentive to attract new and the very best talent.

The other good news is that – while manufacturing workers have significantly less autonomy and fewer opportunities to change their work arrangements in comparison to workers in other sectors of the economy – especially younger workers get more freedom in deciding how to perform their work and are included in decision-making activities. This evolution for sure enhances commitment and talent stability.

The bad news is that working in manufacturing tends to be tiring work. Two in three middle-aged employees in the manufacturing sector – reported that they come home from work too tired to take care of their household chores at least several times a month.

More bad news is that in comparison to other sectors, workers in the manufacturing sector have less access to career progression and promotion programs and fewer options in terms of where, when, and how work is to be performed. All generations express a preference for access to flexible work options. That would increase business effectiveness and productivity. Likely, some rigidities stem from the imperatives of the production process, which can prohibit work off-site, work part-year, reduce work hours, choose work shift etcetera. But still…

On the other hand the authors of the report find evidence that enterprise size strongly predicts the availability of flexible options. One in four small manufacturers (those employing fewer than 100 workers) established flexible work options to a moderate or great extent, a rate that was two to three times higher than medium sized and large sized employers. For young people those small job shops look like the most promising career starts.

And a last – critical – observation is that manufacturers especially have difficulties in

  • recruiting competent job applicants,
  • finding new employees with satisfying operations skills levels,
  • absenteeism,
  • morale,
  • finding employees skilled in management,
  • legal skills
  • and sales/marketing skills.

Teachers of technical schools and parents are the people that can make the change in these skills and attitudes happen.

The manufacturing sector appears to be at a competitive disadvantage without education that leads the world, without redesigned human resource practices to the expansion of flexible work options, and without forward-looking employers…


8 Responses to “The aging workforce: a competitive disadvantage – the necessary actions for the manufacturing sector”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bert Maes, Bert Maes. Bert Maes said: The aging workforce: a competitive disadvantage – the necessary actions for the manufacturing se… #manufacturing #in […]

  2. The aging workforce is a problem and continues to be a problem. The good news is that schools and parents are finally waking up to the fact that the child does NOT need to get a four year degree and not every student is cut out to go to college. As a result, the interest in trade schools is beginning to pick up again. But that is just one part of the equation. The second, possibly more challenging part is attitude. The reason employers are having problems finding qualified personnel is not so much that they are not willing to train the employee, but that the employee does not want to be trained. The work ethic and work attitude is sub-par. The work is often tiring, as was stated in the article and it gets in the way of one’s social life. The answer, until the attitude and work ethic problem gets turned around in America is going to be imported labor. We have a long ways to go and short time to get there and it is going to have to begin with this new workforce generation coming to the understanding that they are entitled to NOTHING and whatever they want they are going to have to earn and work for. Do not show up for an interview with your pants down around your ankles, at least look like you’re interested and don’t walk in thinking you’re going to make $72,000 per year at an entry level position. This is what we are up against. So, either the picture I just painted changes, or we hire imports. Thank you.

    • Bert Maes said

      Thank you for your comment, Jim. The morale and absenteeism in the graph show you are right.
      How can we change the attitude and work ethic of our youth?

      Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

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  7. Este blog es realmente un paseo a través de toda la información que anelaba sobre este este tema tan aditivo y no sabía a quién preguntar .

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