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Manufacturing Month meets Great Resignation: My optimistic outlook on building the next-gen workforce

By: Barbara Humpton, President and CEO, Siemens USA

At the beginning of the last decade, coming out of a recession, some wondered if U.S. manufacturing would survive. This Manufacturing Month, as we look to 2030, it’s now clear that manufacturing is vital to our future—that American manufacturing is part of the backbone of our economy.


I thought about this last year when the President and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Jay Timmons shared his 10-year view with me on my podcast, The Optimistic Outlook. Jay expects that pandemic response will put U.S. manufacturing in an even stronger position than the NAM would have anticipated.


I thought about this last month when I joined technology industry leaders for the White House roundtable on the semiconductor shortage to discuss a key learning from ongoing supply chain challenges: a recognition that localizing production of critical items matters to our nation’s economy, preparedness and security.

And I’ve continued to feel optimistic about manufacturing’s future during more recent conversations on my podcast—in a series exploring the connection between technology and workforce development.


I kicked things off with Brian Neff, CEO of Sintava, an additive manufacturing firm, who painted for listeners a clear picture of how additive manufacturing—or 3D printing— combined with digital twin software enables us to completely rethink how we make things.


Since the dawn of the first industrial revolution, manufacturing tools have evolved to improve productivity. Yet the process itself for manufacturing hasn’t actually changed that much until now, with digital transformation. Additive techniques, software, advanced automation, Internet of Things solutions supported by edge tools and industrial 5G – all of these technologies support new ways of running a factory floor. We can challenge designs that have been in place for decades. We can vastly reduce waste and improve sustainability. And we can vastly increase speed to market, productivity, and cost-efficiency.

At the beginning of the last decade, coming out of a recession, some wondered if U.S. manufacturing would survive. This Manufacturing Month, as we look to 2030, it’s now clear that manufacturing is vital to our future—that American manufacturing is part of the backbone of our economy.

Yet technology is only as powerful as the people behind it. And that’s a big challenge we face right now: attracting people into manufacturing. There’s a massive worker shortage in STEM technical fields – not only in manufacturing, but the power sector, building technologies, cybersecurity and healthcare. These fields are already focused on backfilling talent amid a wave of retirees. Now they’re also being impacted by what’s called the Great Resignation, in which millions of people are voluntarily leaving their jobs. So, as we work together to build the next-generation workforce to run America’s industry and infrastructure, a question I’ll ask tomorrow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Forward event is: How do we turn the Great Resignation into the Great Reassignment?


After talking to Brian, I next interviewed Carolyn Lee, Executive Director, The Manufacturing Institute, who helped us unpack a challenging statistic: U.S. manufacturing has approximately 870,000 open positions. Carolyn even shared data from a report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute forecasting that more than 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled by 2030 unless changes are made to talent and recruitment strategies.


I shared with Carolyn my observation that manufacturing’s talent challenge seems to be a chick-and-egg situation reinforcing the need for a dual focus on workforce development and modernization, as you can’t achieve one objective without the other. If you have don’t have the workers, it’s difficult to deploy new technology. And if you don’t have the technology, it’s difficult to attract the workers.


Carolyn agreed, and noted that manufacturing has what she called a “perception problem.” Only 29 percent of parents have a positive view of manufacturing careers, she said, “and that’s because they picture what manufacturing looked like 50, 60 years ago.”


That’s why it’s so important communicate to American workers—at any stage of their career—that the manufacturing industry is a place where they can engage with the tech world as much as they desire. The manufacturing industry opens a door—for recent graduates or trainees or mid-career workers reinventing themselves—to a cutting-edge sector of the digital economy.


“The vision of the future is high-tech jobs, great pay, benefits, and opportunities for people regardless of their educational level, from high school graduates to advanced STEM,” Carolyn said. 

A colleague of mine who proves this is Corey Scales. He’s a Focus Factory Manager at our Siemens Smart Infrastructure manufacturing plant in Grand Prairie, Texas, where the team fabricates critical hardware for the power industry. And on the podcast, Corey shared how he entered into manufacturing 25 years ago with very little experience and has grown into a role today managing a team of more than 100 workers.


He also addressed a myth in manufacturing that the purpose of deploying new technology is to reduce the need for workers. No, it changes manufacturing roles – and it even creates new ones. Technology exists to help us expand what’s humanly possible.


And we saw that happen in Grand Prairie when Siemens invested in robotics to improve productivity and safety.


“So, starting out, we just had the basic machines,” Corey told me. “And when we introduced robots, we had a lot of people on the floor getting nervous and scared that we’d reduce headcount. But instead of doing that, we taught workers how to program the robots that we have on the floor. Now they have different skill sets that they can utilize wherever they go and continue to grow.”


As we celebrate Manufacturing Month 2021, I’m optimistic about the future. I see opportunities to work together across business, government, education, and philanthropy to advance an inclusive workforce agenda that raises the competitiveness of U.S. industry, strengthens our supply chain, and opens multiple pathways into manufacturing for people at any stage of their lives, education, or careers.


It’s moments of intense disruption that create the great opportunities for us to shape the future we want. We’re not going back to how things were; we’re moving forward. And let’s bring people along.

Editor’s note: Some of the quotes have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Published: October 25, 2021