Manufacturing’s top concerns: Recruiting presents industry challenges

By Jack Keough

I took a few vacation days last week at my favorite place in the world, Boothbay Harbor, Maine. On my first day off, I got up early and tuned to a radio news station in which Maine Gov. Paul LePage was speaking about manufacturing in the U.S.

LePage stressed the importance of manufacturing to our GDP and specifically to the Pine Tree state. Manufacturing in Maine, he pointed out, accounts for thousands of well-paying positions and billions in sales.

LePage’s office conducted a survey of 500 manufacturers who were asked to identify the top three problems facing them in 2012. The number one concern was, of course, health care followed by energy costs. Finding qualified people was third.  

Attracting top talent has been a top concern for manufacturers and distributors for years. Despite the unemployment rate staying above 8%, manufacturers and distributors in survey after survey say recruiting the right people for jobs in our industry remains a challenge.

And that has hurt business.

A power tool company in New York told me it couldn’t run a third shift because it didn’t have the necessary, qualified employees. The company was forced to pay a substantial amount of money for overtime.

Another manufacturer received a $300,000 grant for new equipment to expand its operation and hire three additional employees. The equipment is there and in place but the employees aren’t. They can’t be recruited.

You have to wonder if our industry holds some responsibility for not recruiting more people into this business. I’ve used this phrase before but it’s as true now as it was then: distribution and manufacturing are the world’s best kept secrets.

Should we be promoting our industry better than we have been?

Many people today have the impression that manufacturing is like it was in the 1950’s. Plants then were not air conditioned and the vision of these companies being “sweatshops” still exists in the minds of many young people. I have, and it is interesting to see their reaction when you mention manufacturing.

I’ve toured more than 100 manufacturers and been on their plant floors. Employees operate the latest in tooling technologies and are working in modern, clean and up-to-date factories.

The pay is excellent and opportunities abound for the right people.

The average age of a worker on the plant floor is 56. What will happen when these workers retire in a few years? Will there be a young, highly trained workforce to take their places?

I was a guest speaker at a distribution class at a major university several years ago. These kids were smart, knowledgeable and ready for work. By graduation, every student had been offered a job. Several of them told me they had upwards of five job offers. Many said they had “stumbled” into a distribution program after learning about it while taking some other classes.

Once employees have been in our industry for a few years, they tend to stay. A study done just a few years ago shows that people who are already in distribution/manufacturing would recommend a career to others in their family.

The question is, how do we get this message about our industry out to the general populace?

One suggestion is to work closer with junior colleges and, yes, even high school students. Another idea is to develop internships for high achievers during which these young people can get a taste of life in the distribution/manufacturing trenches.

Manufacturing is far from dead in this country, not by a long shot. And that’s the message we have to get out.

Jack Keough was the editor of Industrial Distribution magazine for more than 26 years. He often speaks at many industry events and seminars. He can be reached at or

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