Everyone knew that in the future, manufacturing organizations of all types would be dealing with increasingly urgent workforce and labor shortages. It’s just that few people likely could have predicted that “the future” would have come along quite as quickly as it did.

According to one recent study, nearly 1/4th of the current manufacturing workforce is either 55-years-old or older – meaning that a labor shortage is no longer on the horizon. It’s officially here.

In addition to the effects generated from the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a big part of this problem has to do with the continued aging – and gradual retirement – of Baby Boomers. People in this age bracket are about to start leaving the workforce in record numbers and there simply aren’t enough people with the specialized skills necessary to replace them.

A recent survey indicated that “retaining and attracting quality workers” is one of the top challenges facing all organizations in the manufacturing industry. Rest assured, this is one issue that is only going to get worse as time goes on.

The Current Workforce and Labor Shortage: Facts and Figures

As stated, this is absolutely a problem that existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s just that the pandemic itself may have acted as something of an accelerant, quickly exacerbating a problem that might have still taken a few years to reach its current levels.

While it’s absolutely true that many organizations used the pandemic as an opportunity to pivot to meet demands for things like masks, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, it isn’t all good news.

Some skilled employees were dropping out of the workforce because they simply didn’t want to expose themselves to the Coronavirus. Others needed to stay home to take care of dependents. Others still may have suddenly realized they were able to make more money from unemployment bonuses than they would have by remaining on the job.

This in turn created a situation where production was slowed, essentially across the globe – something that only made the labor shortage worse. At the same time, it also became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Slower production exacerbates the labor shortage, while the labor shortage slows down production even further.

All told, two recent studies revealed that there is a shortage of approximately 3.5 million manufacturing workers in the United States alone over the next decade. What’s worse, about 2.5 million of them will likely remain permanently unfilled due to a very pressing skills gap. This was according to two parallel studies that were conducted by the experts at both the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte. The same study revealed that about 82% of manufacturing executives say that these problems negatively impact their ability to meet customer demand.

If nothing else, all of this serves to underline the importance that industrial automation and Industry 4.0 represent for the future of manufacturing. For years, it was feared that automation would be little more than an excuse to replace human employees. Then, people began to see automation for what it really was – an opportunity to support and empower those living, breathing workers to do their best on a daily basis.

Now, thanks to the growing workforce and labor shortages, it turns out that the situation may be a bit of “both at the same time.”

Unless the workforce and labor shortages are addressed, there will come a need for automation to step up and replace those jobs that remain unfilled. This is likely going to create a fair amount of turmoil across the sector over the next decade, but hopefully it also breeds a fair amount of innovation and ingenuity as well.

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