Like many recruiters in 2023, Jackie Curtsinger often interviews candidates who want hybrid or remote work opportunities. But for her, there’s a catch: She works primarily with companies in manufacturing, where some amount of in-person work is unavoidable.
Curtsinger, who works for a New Hampshire-based recruiting company, Goodwin Recruiting, said that even in manufacturing, the pandemic has led job seekers increasingly to demand more flexibility in their work schedules. Instead of toiling for long hours without any significant benefits, workers now wish for more inclusivity, input and positive appraisals in the workplace. They want to “feel as if they are a part of something important.”
“The pandemic slowed down everything and really gave workers a chance to introspect into their work-life balance,’’ Curtsinger said. “Now they want a job that meets their needs and wants.”
Manufacturing workers have reason to be choosy. There were more than 800,000 open jobs in the industry in January, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and not nearly enough skilled workers available to fill them. That means workers have leverage as they pick between the best of job opportunities.
Labor shortages in manufacturing long predate the pandemic. A large share of blue collar workers in the manufacturing industry are nearing retirement age, and there are not enough younger workers to replace them, which has led to a shortage of experienced workers in the industry.
Moreover, changing times have altered the face of manufacturing across the board, causing a swift transition towards smart manufacturing which necessitates advanced technical skills that many blue collar employees still don’t have, such as robotics or programming. The workforce has responded by either upskilling through education or shifting to more stable industries like the service industry.
But the pandemic made the existing labor shortage worse: COVID-19 disrupted the supply chains, causing many factories to shut down temporarily. While a lot of those workers returned, many didn’t. Some workers have also been hesitant to return to work due to health concerns or lack of childcare options.
Now, many manufacturing companies are looking for ways to break the rigidity of the sector and appease a workforce that is essentially disillusioned with the idea of long, laborious in-person shifts.
Many companies in recent years have begun offering teleworking opportunities, at least for employees who don’t have to be present on the factory floor to oversee operations. The latest BLS data also shows that around 12% of all employees in the manufacturing industry got teleworking opportunities in 2021.
Many manufacturing companies are utilizing digital tools to increase their production outcomes and offset the challenges presented by remote/hybrid work. Like other employers, they use video conferencing tools to hold meetings, cloud computing to ensure teamwork without physical availability, and apps that ensure easy contact between managers, engineers and workers.
Furthermore, companies are increasingly digitizing their factory operations using unique technologies. For instance, the cloud-based Manufacturing Execution System can take charge of the production line and present real-time data to manufacturers through the cloud. With a centralized dashboard, companies can be informed of what is happening in their production line as long as they are connected to the internet. This can help them monitor their shop floor even if they are working remotely.
Ben Merton is the co-founder of Unifize, a California-based software company that is providing tools and services to help digitize the manufacturing industry. The company creates data tools and interfaces that help in tracking inventory, customer orders and delivery timings so that many employees within the sector can oversee operations from their homes, instead of being physically present in the factory.
“We believe that our tools can help ease the work of non-production manufacturing staff who are a huge part of the manufacturing workforce,” Merton said. “These people don’t have to stay at the shop floor anymore.”
Because of the increased prevalence of digital tools in manufacturing, supply chain managers, business development managers, CAD and product engineers, consultants, and many others in the workforce can work on a hybrid schedule.
J Stadler Machine from Wisconsin is a family-owned manufacturing business that specializes in producing machine parts. Computer controlled manufacturing is the main highlight of their shop floor operations and their willingness to invest in the latest technology has allowed them to offer remote jobs to the manufacturing workforce.
Since the pandemic, the company has re-incentivized their jobs for current employees and future candidates by offering remote work to engineers and machine operators.
“Ideally, this [remote work] would’ve been a hard task for us to manage,” said Rich Stadler, who manages the shop floor at J Stadler Machine. “But because our production relies so heavily on technology, we are able to offer more flexibility to our employees.”