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Factory Jobs Aren’t WFH But Can Still Be Flexible

Comment on this story Most manufacturing assembly lines are still built around employees working at least eight-hour shifts, five days a week, and that’s been a hurdle for industrial companies competing for talent in a labor force that increasingly prioritizes flexibility. Factory employees aren’t going to be able to work from home anytime soon, but there are changes companies can — and should — make to rethink the industrial workweek. As of May, US manufacturers had more than 600,000 job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that’s an improvement from the peak of more than 1 million last April, the number of unfilled positions is still elevated relative to pre-pandemic levels. And the industry’s need for workers is also rising. Melius Research has tabulated some $600 billion of “mega projects” — defined as an investment greater than $1 billion — announced cumulatively since January 2021 amid a rewiring of global supply chains and a revival of industrial policy. But the ultimate economic impact of those new factories, hospital wings and airport terminals depends on the availability of labor to build and operate the projects. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. said this week that it needed to delay the start of production at a plant it’s building in Arizona because there aren’t enough workers available, particularly those with the expertise needed to install equipment in a semiconductor-grade facility. TSMC is sending experienced technicians from Taiwan to help train the US workforce, Chairman Mark Liu said on the company’s earnings call. Read more: A ‘Bidenomics’ Boost May Not Mean Reshoring Advertisement Companies surveyed by the National Association of Manufacturers ranked attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce as their biggest business challenge in the second quarter, ahead of a weakening economic outlook, supply chain challenges and access to credit. The group has previously warned the industry could be short 2.1 million workers by 2030. In addition to skilled workers such as those needed to build semiconductor plants, “many manufacturers can’t fill entry-level production associate positions,” according to a 2021 report co-produced by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development and education partner of the NAM. “These are the jobs that do not require technical know-how or industry knowledge. … Rather, they require a person who has a basic level of ‘human capabilities,’ such as following directions, willingness to learn, and follow-through.” The manufacturing sector typically offers better benefits and wages on average compared with the retail and services sectors, according to a Deloitte analysis of 2021 data from the BLS. But work-life balance was the No. 2 priority after attractive pay in Deloitte and NAM’s survey of manufacturing workers for that year. This was also the area where respondents said manufacturers fell short the most and the primary reason they listed for considering leaving the industry. Some of the issues holding back the growth of the industrial labor force are complicated. The US has spent decades emphasizing four-year college degrees as the gold standard, to the detriment of technical schools and manufacturing careers. Narratives around robots stealing jobs and dull, dirty and dangerous work are deeply ingrained, however inaccurately they may describe the current state of US factories. Manufacturers haven’t helped perceptions of the industry by firing workers en masse when business slumps. But the desire for more flexible schedules is a solvable problem. Read more: Three Ideas to Fix the Factory Labor Crunch Advertisement Historically, the manufacturing sector has shunned part-time work because employees in those positions were perceived to be more challenging to train and less reliable. But with baby boomers retiring and millennials showing less interest in factory work, GE Appliances realized it needed to rethink how it managed its workforce and give part-time employees another try. “The way we have looked in the past at hourly associates was 40 hours a week of work, plus some overtime and here’s our pay and benefits, take it or leave it,” Bill Good, vice president of supply chain at GE Appliances, said in an interview. “We have had to flip that script. We can continue to have that approach and then struggle to fill manufacturing jobs, or we can change and break paradigms and start looking at, ‘If we can’t make the person fit the work, then we need to make the work fit the person.’” GE Appliances is owned by China’s Haier Group, which acquired the business from General Electric Co. in 2016 for $5.6 billion. In 2018, the company started experimenting with hiring people to work […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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