How can Plant Heads Address the Looming Expertise Shortage in Manufacturing Operations?

A 2022 report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics paints a stark picture, highlighting 452,000 job openings in the manufacturing sector alone, i.e. 3 out of 10 jobs still need to be filled now. Also, the National Association of Manufacturers forecasts that this number is well poised to swell up to 2.1 million by 2030, representing an opportunity cost of 1 trillion dollars annually.

Most industrial nations, too, are grappling with this similar dual challenge of ageing workforces and a pronounced labour scarcity. While over the past three years, the average tenure, time in position, and retention across manufacturing has gone down over 75%, this labour shortage has become a pressing concern for manufacturers, employees and investors, as it can affect productivity and growth.


Now, even though Consulting Firms proclaim AI in Manufacturing & Industrial Automation tools would solve this crisis, heavy manufacturing industries still need to rely heavily on Plant Operators for Critical Equipment Maintenance and ensure the proactive safety of Plant Operations as per OSHA standards.

So, how did we arrive at this situation?

  1. The Baby Boomer Boomerang: As experienced Senior Operators reach retirement age, their departure creates a significant knowledge and skill gap that younger generations still need to fill. The critical risk is that even senior plant operators are not inclined to support their children in taking manufacturing jobs.
  2. Manufacturing’s Image Problem: Perpetual stereotypes of dirty, lack of innovation, safety risk, and lack of career growth continue to dissuade potential recruits. Tech-savvy Millennials and Gen Z workforce mainly favour technology, software, and other opportunities where working conditions and compensation are more attractive.
  3. Long Learning Curve: Expertise in operations is developed from practical field experience, tribal knowledge, and from trial and error. Further, the situations which enable operations teams to hone their skills are sporadic. For these reasons, engineers often have to commit at least 10 years to become experts.
  4. Lack of Self-Learning Tools: The new generation of engineers grew up with smartphones and apps that bring everything to their fingertips. On the other hand, developing expertise does not have tools and requires shadowing other experts to learn from them. This demotivates engineers, pushing them out of operations.
  5. The Skills Mismatch: The Industry’s embrace of automation and complex technologies necessitates a workforce equipped with STEM skills – capabilities many traditional manufacturing job-seekers lack. And there is an associated high cost of retraining Senior Operators.
  6. Lack of Diversity: As per the 2023 Career Advancement in Manufacturing Report – Xometry, only 1 in 3 manufacturing professionals and 1 in 4 manufacturing leaders are women, with no significant change from 2021.
  7. Global Narratives on Environmental Impact: Heavy manufacturing industries are often linked with pollution & Global Warming, while their significant economic contribution and ongoing efforts towards sustainability fail to become mainstream, dissuading younger workforce from joining this Industry.

To summarise, there are not enough skilled workers to do the job nor enough unskilled workers willing to commit long-term to an industry which is considered old and stoic. Further, the lack of tools that can address these issues is leading to chronic risks in process continuity for Heavy Manufacturing, which include:

  • 👉Inability to fortify Knowledge Management to enhance Operations Excellence across all sites
  • 👉Additional Capex to hire Consultants for Plant Anomalies and retrain Junior Operators

So how can Plant Heads win this looming talent shortage crisis for their operations?

Short Term: Support Engineers with Self-Service, Prescriptive Maintenance tools

  • New Digital Initiatives to support Plant Operations: Bring innovative and contemporary technologies to change the industry’s image, create excitement, and connect with the younger workforce.
  • Democratize Operational Expertise to all Sites: Use AI-based Prescriptive Maintenance solutions that provide a framework for capturing expertise from senior experts and can guide the younger teams with FMEA, equipment Failure Modes, root cause analysis, and mitigation steps across all sites.
  • Empower Operations Teams with Self-Service Tools: The next generation of engineers like flexibility and ownership. Provide them with self-service solutions that help track operational KPIs such as availability and performance without dependency on the corporate teams.

Mid Term: Reframe Narrative & policies to Retain Diversity

  • Reframing the Narrative on Safety & Working Conditions:Showcase investment in Digital Initiatives for Plant Safety and additional capex to retrain Plant Operators, primarily influencing the senior Plant Operators and driving word out mouth referrals
  • New Job Roles to Retain Diversity: As per the 2023 Career Advancement in Manufacturing Report, the top three job functions with the most significant female representation are human resources, business functions, and quality control. Recruiting more women into entry-level roles right out of college and building them up through the company could be a key game-changer.
  • Employee Engagement Programs: Alignment with Health Insurance programs & other initiatives provided by new-age tech firms to make the positions more attractive. For example, partial sponsorship for upskilling or management programs enables best-performing plant operators New Career Paths & Functions Robotic Automation Machine Vision to grow into management roles.

Long Term: Newer Technologies & Approaches

  • New Career Paths & Functions: Operations teams in manufacturing are split into several isolated functions like reliability, performance, process, energy, instrumentation, etc. Creating more cross-functional roles and career paths focussed on new technologies can not only engage workforce but also help improve operational efficiency.

  • Robotic Automation: Plant Wide Robotic Automation could replace repetitive production floor operations such as heavy lifting, joint welding or transportation of Raw Materials.

  • Machine Vision: Eliminate the need for human monitoring in the QA process by using Autonomous Machine Vision solutions that can spot defects and sort products accordingly.

Winning this war for talent requires more than just brute force. It’s about agility, vision, and a commitment to reshaping the image of heavy manufacturing. By embracing technology, celebrating diversity, and investing in the future, Plant Heads can transform their factories into beacons of innovation, attracting the best and brightest to build a more sustainable, prosperous future for the industry.

Research Links:

1. The Labor Shortage Is Killing American Manufacturing. Here’s How AI Can Bring It Back To Life. (

2. Manufacturing industry diversity | Deloitte Insights

3. Understanding America’s Labor Shortage | U.S. Chamber of Commerce (

4. Worker Shortage: Overcoming Workforce Challenges In Manufacturing (

5. Job openings levels and rates by industry and region, seasonally adjusted – 2023 M11 Results (

6. Million Manufacturing Jobs Could Go Unfilled by 2030 – NAM

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