Conversations with some of those working to fix manufacturing’s image issues

A refrain I heard again and again while interviewing people for this month’s features was that manufacturing has a marketing problem.

Gone are the smokestack days, as one interviewee called them, when factory floors were dirty, dingy places. They’re now high-tech, with automation-enhanced machinery that’s allowing employees to maintain what could be considered a high level of productivity given that fewer people are working in the sector.

And there’s the other problem: Manufacturers are facing a significant skills gap that sees older workers, those over the age of 45, getting ready to retire and not as many candidates from the younger generation lined up to replace them. That brings it back to the first issue, marketing.

Attracting labor to manufacturing jobs has been an issue for as long as I’ve been talking to manufacturers. It’s gotten to the point that many will acknowledge the issue, and then leave it at that because it’s been talked about to the point of being common knowledge.

Manufacturers, however, continue to find ways to get the word out that they have good-paying jobs — not jobs, but careers — for those willing to work and study hard.

In this month’s feature, I spoke with manufacturers, associations and educators who are working with multiple stakeholders to create programs to give people a path to these careers.

There are training programs held at community colleges that prepare students to fill specific roles at area manufacturers, apprenticeships designed to give a well-rounded and practical education, and ways to identify applicable skills in those who might not otherwise think their capabilities align with the attributes employers are looking for.

They’re also finding ways to get the word out to young people — some starting or aiming to start the conversation as early as grade school — that manufacturing isn’t dirty factory floors anymore.

Bridging the gap between perception and reality, and filling the generational skills gap, seem to be the top priorities for manufacturers who are collectively an economic powerhouse in the region. It’s important that opportunities and those who struggle to find their place in an ever-changing economy are connected. In this issue, we talk with some of the people who are working to do just that.

Adam Burroughs is Associate Editor of Smart Business Akron/Canton