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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Observation : Manufacturing Labor Shortage From an Employer’s Perspective

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

In June, I had the opportunity to visit the Automate Show in Detroit, Michigan, my first exposure to the bustling world of trade shows. Upon entering the convention room, the first sign I saw an enthusiastic “Looking for a New Opportunity in the Automation Industry? See Who’s Hiring Now!” I had tangible evidence for a key connection between two cornerstones of the American economy: the manufacturing sector is a major voice in ongoing workforce development efforts.

The convention floor was sprawling with crammed booths and overhead signs displaying the names of big corporations like FANUC, Kawasaki Robotics, and Panasonic. Most of the booths exhibited a few select technologies—arms, gears, recognition/inspection systems. Each of the companies had different niches for their products, such as precision, strength, or a novel AI implementation idea. However, given that the Automate Show centered solely around automation technologies, the labor needs represented were only a slice of the big manufacturing picture. Inherently, automation is about getting rid of humans, so I was particularly curious to see how automation companies analyzed the labor shortage issue.

As I walked around, I stopped by several booths and introduced myself, the project I was working on, and asked an available company representative for their insights on issues within manufacturing workforce development. By the end of the day, I noticed commonalities in many of their responses.

Inherently, automation is about getting rid of humans, so I was particularly curious to see how automation companies analyzed the labor shortage issue.

Getting Bodies Into Buildings

Several representatives stated that there simply were not enough people to fill open positions.


Manufacturing’s lackluster stigma

Arguably the most frequent comment I received during my rounds through the booths was about manufacturing’s reputation as a career field.


JR Automation was the first exhibit that caught my eye upon walking into the show. The display contained a dial of robotic arms, all of which performed different tasks, such as 3D printing, inspection, and placement. According to the booth representative, the tasks performed in one dial could be interchanged to fit a factory’s needs.


In response to my inquiries, he explained that companies that do not normally automate are now forced to automate. I became aware that automation was not always in the name of saving costs; rather, it was a last-resort effort that manufacturers were forced to spend time and resources on.


Initially, I contemplated whether automating companies were simply unwilling to spend time educated people who were waiting to be trained for upskilling. But, in truth, that pool of people is dwindling. The representative emphasized that in many companies, the intention to educate is there, but the learners who would fulfill that intention are absent, a “void.”

I became aware that automation was not always in the name of saving costs; rather, it was a last-resort effort that manufacturers were forced to spend time and resources on.

Even as some of the traditional, laborious manufacturing jobs are disappearing to automation, companies still need people to advance the newer technologies.


The JR representative, a tone of distress in his voice, explained that people fresh out of high school do not get degrees for manufacturing–rather, they get degrees associated with “cool” and “unique” job fields. As a high school student myself, I live that very truth. If the students at schools in my area were surveyed, few, if any, would put “manufacturing” as their career aspiration. Engineering or computer science, maybe. But those degrees are considered “high tech” and sophisticated, associated with “cutting-edge” efforts in the STEM sectors of the economy.


A few conversations later, I came across a much smaller booth belonging to the Custom Machine & Tool (CMT) Company, which produces an innovative gear design that stabilizes conveyor belts. Interestingly, despite the difference in company scale, CMT echoed JR’s sentiment. People do not see manufacturing jobs as “glamorous,” since the sector is primarily composed of trade school careers.


Provided CMT’s niche focus on one component of an entire manufacturing process, the representative gave me a striking insight: people like to see how their work fits into a bigger effort. If the only object workers face on a day-to-day basis is a single gear, finding purpose in or seeing the impact of their jobs is difficult.


Personally, I see no need to deliberately “glamorize” the manufacturing sector. Rather, individuals need to be properly shown, from a young age, how manufacturing is the basis for everything. The engines in rockets or the chips in phones are only made possible by someone who decided to go into manufacturing. If people realize that their daily lives run on global manufacturing processes, the sector can emerge from its obscurity and become more normalized.

If the only object workers face on a day-to-day basis is a single gear, finding purpose in or seeing the impact of their jobs is difficult.

Four-year college gold standard

Another barrier that prevents individuals from entering the manufacturing sector is its associated educational path.


The JR representative emphasized that traditional four-year degree are not necessary to be successful in the manufacturing sector; rather, trade schools are an optimal path. However, the CMT representative explained how that path could be the very reason people are deterred from entering manufacturing pathways. The moment they learn that “CNC machinist” is a trade school occupation, people bar themselves from investigating the job description further due to a negative stigma surrounding any post-secondary education that is not a four-year college degree. High school students, parents, and teachers, especially in this day and age, often carry the mindset that a four-year college education, at the least, is the golden ticket to unlocking all the white collar, well-paying, and socioeconomically uplifting jobs. They do not even have to know about what manufacturing occupations entail to decide that the work is not for them.

The moment they learn that “CNC machinist” is a trade school occupation, people bar themselves from investigating the job description further due to a negative stigma surrounding any post-secondary education that is not a four-year college degree.

Providing real-world experiences

Stigmas and mindsets are often rooted in a person at a young age. Therefore, many ongoing efforts to increase interest in manufacturing are targeted toward youth. JR Automation, for example, works with educational institutions to find talent, collaborating with high schools to host robotic events, trying to “cultivate” people who strive to work for JR. The company also provides teaches on the job training, apprenticeships, and internships.


The most effective workforce development programs are the ones targeted toward people who have never grazed the actual workforce yet. If students still in primary and secondary school are primed to value and find passion in manufacturing-related skills, they will be incentivized to find post-secondary education tailored to entering the sector. Especially within apprenticeships and internships, learners have the opportunity to dabble across different skill sets within manufacturing and get a good idea of what they truly click with.

The most effective workforce development programs are the ones targeted toward people who have never grazed the actual workforce yet.

Defining “high skill” jobs

After hearing that there simply were not enough people to educate or upskill, I wanted to pinpoint which occupations these companies wanted to fill.


Yamaha Robotics Group was the second booth I approached, being lured by the candy that sat on the conveyor belts in their display. The system in the display showed off Yamaha’s efficient conveyor system, in which different sections of the conveyor would move around independently and constantly rearrange to create a seamless path for the candy to the dispensing shoot. I was given the opportunity to select the two types of candy I desired on a screen interface. Two start the process, a camera recognition software helped the system identify which two candy packages to separate from the pile of Reese’s, Yorks, and Hershey’s. Whatever occupations involved with this system did not even require a set of human eyes.


When asked about the types of occupations involved with the system, the booth representative explained that such a system would need programmers to understand the sequences of operation, as well as controls groups composed of electrical engineers and mechanical engineers to design the project. The first skill required that came to his mind was math, in order to calculate current, electricity, and forces within the system.


I received a similar answer from Motus Labs, which works to design extremely precise gears. The representative listed electrical and mechanical engineers, business people, and marketing specialists. Similar to CMT, Motus Labs designs a component rather than a system, so it is logical that their human labor needs center around design and integration rather than operation.

Programmers, engineers, and salespeople all work with manufacturing equipment from afar. However, occupations that are more hands-on, those that involve operating the equipment, tend to be more labor-intensive. Laborers are often defined as low-skill workers, so Yamaha’s and Motus Lab’s expression of greater need for high-level employees proves the dwindling demand for unskilled labor.


Despite Yamaha’s and Motus Lab’s responses, I remembered that in my conversations with JR Automation and CMT, both companies mentioned CNC machinists and similar trade school occupations that involved more ground-level work with the different manufacturing systems.

Therefore, I saw a divide in the types of jobs companies are willing to educate on. High level occupations that involve engineering and marketing skills, for example, have high demand, meaning that the pool of people ready to be trained is overflowing. Companies may not have to invest as much time and effort into performing outreach and convincing people to consider those occupations. The general public has a good idea of what mechanical engineers do, while most people do not know what a CNC machinist does. To fill ground-level occupations, companies must educate the public on what tasks these different occupations entail, why they are worthy of going into, and then work on actually training the individuals who are still interested.


Collaborative Robots

One type of technology piqued my interest due to the nature of its operation: automation that could only run on human labor.


FlexIV’s booth displayed what at first glance was an extremely basic robotic arm that appeared to be polishing a slab of carbon fiber. Curious as to what was special about the arm, I approached and watched the arm go back and forth and around the surface. The booth representative then explained that the arm was a collaborative robot, also known as a “cobot.”

Whoever operates the arm can push it around in whichever direction they desire, and the arm will readjust in order to continue evenly polishing. The booth representative then showed me the digital application for operating the arm, which displayed an extremely simple block programming interface. Although I see the deliberate incorporation of human labor as beneficial to the preservation of jobs, I also worry that the simplicity of the interface is the first sign that these companies design technology to accommodate lower human skill, rather than working to raise human skill to accommodate advancing technologies. Although low-skill workers may be able to keep their jobs briefly, I worried that there were no guarantees that in tough financial times companies will not let them go. Knowledge is always more sustainable to staying employed.


Growing with Technology

My concerns were addressed by one of the Automate Show’s core companies: FANUC. The center of the conference floor was occupied by the distinctive yellow and red of FANUC’s signs and robotic arms.


One of the corporation’s displays was a circle of robotic arms that were each attached to a different head to perform various tasks. The arm I stood near, for example, was able to pick up small lip balm cans and stack them neatly in a makeup organizer.


I asked the booth representative about the benefits and drawbacks of using cobots. He explained that first, cobots do not require fencing, which most likely means they take up less space within a factory floor. However, he added, cobots cannot handle as large a payload as robots and thus are limited to light-duty tasks. In a way, the presence of a human operator seemed to reduce a cobot’s capabilities, most likely due to safety concerns.


FANUC’s digital application interface held a similar block coding format as FlexIV’s. However, the booth representative gave me one of the most striking insights I heard all day: despite the currently simple tasks and interfaces that cobots perform and carry, there is great potential for an unskilled worker to grow with the technology they operate. The implications of this are astronomical–unskilled workers can find a job, and the guarantee of growth ensures that such workers are set up to obtain constantly evolving and applicable skill sets, reducing the risk of replacement by a robot across the timeline of their careers. Workers receive the promise of a clear, stable support path to more skilled work.

…despite the currently simple tasks and interfaces that cobots perform and carry, there is great potential for an unskilled worker to grow with the technology they operate.

General Takeaways

After brief consideration, it became clear that many of the labor shortage issues that manufacturing employers face are caused by certain mindsets across the public. Mindsets are often cultural, however, leading me to believe that individuals of certain communities or backgrounds may not hold those same mindsets. Apart from the people who hold presumptions about the manufacturing sector, there is also a group of individuals who simply have not given much thought to the manufacturing sector or what it is. They may have never discussed manufacturing jobs with anyone in their communities and may not know what post-secondary educational opportunities are available. This group of people composes the “untapped workforce,” informally defined as the many individuals and populations that employers have ignored, particularly in periods of higher unemployment.”


People who have neither positive nor negative attitudes toward a matter are easily swayed and open to learning more about that matter. If companies are willing to invest in outreach tailored toward the untapped workforce, they are much more likely to draw interest in manufacturing’s importance and its job opportunities.


However, the strategies to reach those communities are widely unexplored and companies lack a framework to perform such outreach in. The Automate Show held a panel discussion on the future of the workforce and cultivating talent in the next generations. In the Q&A session, I decided the panelists to ask about the untapped workforce, and the several started their spiels with “where do we begin?”, “tough question” and “there’s no unified philosophy.”


I do not blame companies for putting the untapped workforce on hold, because education comes second to business. Therefore, it is crucial for educational agencies, non-profits, and networks to prioritize the endeavor. Such institutions can pave the path for companies to follow in the future.

In the Q&A session, I decided the panelists to ask about the untapped workforce, and the panelists started their spiels with “where do we begin?”, “tough question” and “there’s no unified philosophy.”

Upon first glance, the convention floor looked like a sea of collared shirts, khaki pants, blazers, and high heels. Everyone was wearing a lanyard that listed their current job position, employer, and home city. If I were to guess, few, if any, of the unskilled workers I talked about with the representatives were present. The Automate Show was trying to build the workforce, but not involving the people who would compose that workforce. Talk is talk, and at the end of the day, only action can make a real impact. It was from there I realized the importance of spreading the lessons I learned from my experience.


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