How to Address a Shrinking Manufacturing Workforce

Each day, an increasing number of manufacturers find themselves short staffed. Not only is the industry enjoying a period of modest growth, but employees are retiring faster than recruiters can replace them. These conditions are unlikely to change any time soon. If manufacturers are going to figure out how to manage in this new reality, they must become adept at finding new qualified workers quickly. Recruitment teams need to start working on three key areas.


Prioritize employer brands

Just over 45 percent of respondents in a recent National Association of Manufacturers survey highlighted “the inability to attract and retain workers . . . as the biggest threat to their business.” In fact, nearly three in ten manufacturers have “turned down new business” because they can barely handle their current orders. These numbers highlight a people problem that could have long-term ramifications as manufacturers struggle to maintain and grow their workforces, costing them opportunities and eating into their bottom lines.


To address this problem, manufacturers need to focus on their employer brands and, by extension, their employer value propositions. In the United States, there’s considerable nostalgia for manufacturing as a profession. But few people want these jobs today, largely because they have an outdated perception of the industry. Modern manufacturers rely heavily on automation, which has created new job categories beyond the traditional blue-collar ones.


The decline in the number of candidates from younger generations is a clear sign that manufacturing has a serious image problem. Attention-grabbing career portals and social media strategies that highlight benefits, career opportunities, and engaging work cultures go a long way toward helping the industry increase its appeal. But if employers expect to change outdated ideas about what it means to work in manufacturing, they also need to do a much better job of convincing candidates to give the industry a closer look.


Leverage employee referrals

Employee referral technologies are relatively inexpensive to operate and result in consistently high performers. In one recent LinkedIn survey, nearly one-third of respondents counted “employee referral programs” as one of their “top sources of quality hires.” Such programs aren’t perfect, though, and when problems arise recruitment teams need to assess and resolve them as quickly as possible.


Challenge: Referrals aren’t top of mind for employees, because they’re focused on their usual day-to-day duties.

Solution: Work with department heads and team leads to schedule time for periodic conversations about referrals.


Challenge: Employees refer candidates outside existing, formal channels.

Solution: Ensure that the referral process is easy and that all employees understand how it works. Provide them with pregenerated posts to make it easier for them to share openings on social media.


Challenge: Referrals are inconsistent across teams and fluctuate over time; participation is sporadic and hard to predict.

Solution: Employees may not be aware of openings outside their immediate teams or business units, so communicate openings across the business regularly and incentivize participation.


Challenge: Employees consistently report that they don’t know whom to refer and that few of the candidates they do refer are hired.

Solution: Pull employees’ networks into a collective database (with their permission, of course), then use matching technology to pair potential candidates with current and projected openings.


Increase workforce diversity

Manufacturers have long struggled to diversify their workforces. For example, men make up 53 percent of the overall workforce in the United States yet make up 71 percent of the manufacturing workforce. About four-fifths of the manufacturing workforce identifies as white. Large pockets of older workers are set to retire in the coming years. If manufacturers want to expand (or even just maintain) their workforce numbers, they need to work harder to recruit and retain groups who are typically underrepresented in that industry. That means increased outreach to younger people, women, and minorities—and it means working harder to reduce bias in hiring (by hiding names and photos on resumes, for example).


Manufacturing isn’t going anywhere – but if employers aren’t careful, their workforces might. As automation increasingly becomes a part of manufacturing processes, the industry needs to attract people with the skills to thrive in a more high-tech environment. Those employees—stuck with outdated perceptions of manufacturing—may not think to give manufacturers a closer look when considering the next steps in their careers. It’s up to employers to make job seekers aware of this option and to promote their industry as a desirable career option.


Alex Oliver is a content strategy associate with iCIMS Inc., a leading provider of innovative Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) talent-acquisition solutions that help businesses win the war for top talent. To learn more about how iCIMS can help your organization, visit