Business owners are desperate to fill open jobs, and most say the labor shortage is the biggest challenge they face right now. Even after the mass layoffs of the early days of the pandemic, most businesses have open positions and simply cannot find enough qualified people to fill them. Signs like “help wanted” and “closed for staffing” are everywhere.
And it’s not just small businesses looking for staff, either. Every industry is struggling. For proof of that, look no further than the impact of the labor shortage on metal fabrication.
American Welding Society data shows that the metal fabrication industry faces a shortage of up to 40,000 workers by 2024. The reasons range from older workers leaving the workforce in droves to pandemic-driven changes in worker expectations. Still, the effect is the same: the entire manufacturing industry feels the pinch in unexpected and far-reaching ways.
Come along as we explore how the ongoing lack of skilled workers influences the metal fabrication industry and how companies respond.
The boom in automated manufacturing technology has many people thinking that humans no longer have a place in metal fabrication. However, even as they embrace automation, manufacturing companies need people with the skills to operate the advanced tools; after all, the machines cannot work themselves, no matter how advanced they may be.
Implementing automation tools eliminates many dirty, dangerous, or tedious manufacturing tasks that drive people away from the field. Organizations that invest in technology may eliminate some positions and ease the burden of the labor shortage. Still, they also create new jobs that are more appealing and require different skill sets.
Ultimately, the small pool of manufacturing job seekers may make the work less physically demanding and hazardous. Workers are less likely to sustain injuries from repetitive work or suffer burnout from the constant physical demands, which can make the jobs more appealing and give companies more engaged and productive team members.
The effects of the labor shortage on metal fabrication spread far and wide. No one is immune to supply chain disruptions and shipping delays brought on in large part by pandemic-related changes to the labor market. Regardless of what happened over the last few years, the mandate for the manufacturing industry is clear: it’s time to make changes to stabilize resources and labor to avoid further disruptions.
These steps include making changes to secure talent in all aspects of their operations, including transportation, logistics, purchasing, and fabrication. This transformation also means changing the conversation about what manufacturing is like to alter its reputation as a low-wage, dead-end job that doesn’t require creativity or skill. To fill open positions and create a steady pipeline of qualified tradespeople, the industry has to communicate the value of metal fabricators and the opportunities for fulfilling and well-paying work.
Addressing the labor shortage also means companies need to give their culture a closer look to address how well it supports workers’ mental health, well-being, and work-life balance. The pandemic caused big changes in how people view their careers. Manufacturing has a reputation for being a less supportive environment that requires long hours of demanding work, and it’s up to organizations to change their cultures to better align with what employees want.
One challenge companies face in finding employees is that even entry-level jobs in the custom metal fabrication field require baseline knowledge and skill. These skills will ensure some otherwise talented individuals can apply for open positions.
Many companies are getting creative to find solutions to this issue and attract more applicants with on-the-job training programs and other incentives for career education. These programs might offer an intensive training course, for instance, with guaranteed employment for participants who pass. These programs prepare people for entry-level work in metal fabrication and offer reassurance that the time spent on education will be worthwhile, something a trade school cannot promise.
Offering in-house training programs also gives current employees opportunities to expand their skills. Tradespeople facing burnout or changes to their current roles can acquire new skills that let them remain in the industry but take on new challenges. This way, they are less likely to leave their jobs, worsening the metal fabrication labor shortage.
Every field needs qualified individuals to educate and train the next generation of tradespeople. This is easier said than done in a field like metal fabrication, where the most skilled and talented people can be selective and land the most lucrative opportunities — which, unfortunately, are rarely in education. Many trade schools and community colleges rely on adjunct instructors and have limited budgets, so they can’t offer skilled fabricators big salaries with benefits to teach.
The lack of experienced individuals to fill teaching positions is a widespread problem not limited to metal fabrication, and the pandemic only worsened it. However, in the context of the labor shortage, it’s even harder for schools to hire people for teaching positions. There’s simply too much competition from high-paying jobs with better benefits from metal fabrication companies.
To ensure a steady stream of skilled tradespeople to work in education, metal fabrication companies and trade programs will need to get creative in how they go about attracting new workers.
There’s a skill gap in metal fabrication thanks to the introduction of new automation technologies. Traditionally, manufacturing and metalwork fell into the blue-collar, physical labor category. However, the advent of robot-assisted and computer-controlled equipment introduced more white-collar elements to work.
Staying competitive means metal fabrication companies must market manufacturing as “new collar” work to lure employees with technical and soft skills to consider opportunities in this rapidly changing environment. They need to expand their outreach to find new ways of attracting individuals who might not otherwise enter the field and look for fresh ideas to recruit and acquire talent.
The metal fabrication field is more sophisticated than ever and requires highly skilled individuals. Those who work with graduating seniors and career changers need to know what the modern metal manufacturing industry needs and encourage talented and motivated individuals to pursue these roles. A new approach to recruitment means re-educating school counselors, career advisors, students, and their parents about the changes in the manufacturing industry and correcting misconceptions that the work is always dirty and dangerous.
To reduce the impact of the labor shortage on metal fabrication, companies need to provide their workers with the skills and experience to improve within their roles and take on new opportunities. While a certain set of foundational skills is critical to entering the industry, with so many potential paths one can take, the need for specialized knowledge is greater than ever. Younger workers, in particular, seek employers who invest in their development, so making ongoing education and training a priority can help attract a younger and more engaged workforce.
Metal fabricators need to conceptualize 3D objects, read blueprints, and use the right tools and technologies in their everyday work, and those skills require ongoing education. Metal fabrication companies also need to provide education and training beyond the early days of an individual’s employment to ensure they can keep up with industry changes and new technologies. Metal fabricators need to conceptualize 3D objects, read blueprints, and use the right tools and technologies in their everyday work, and those skills require ongoing education. One great way to address the labor shortage is to cross-train and develop employee skills in multiple areas, so they can seamlessly move between roles.
Advances in technology, changes to worker expectations, demands for higher pay, and overall societal shifts in what people see as “valuable” work are all factors in the crisis-level labor shortage in the metal fabrication industry. Companies have to get creative and rethink how they approach hiring, training, and supporting their workers, or they risk being unable to meet customer demands.
We can’t solve the labor shortage overnight. But we can work together to make the industry more attractive to young people and career changers by highlighting the technical skills, ingenuity, and value that skilled tradespeople bring. At Midland Metal Products, this means a renewed commitment to expanding our services and capabilities to meet our customers’ needs and investing in the best equipment, software, and people to make domestic manufacturing cost-effective and reliable.
We hope our insights into the effects of the labor shortage on metal fabrication help you understand what our industry is facing and what companies of all sizes — even small, family-owned enterprises like Midland Metal Products — must do to stay competitive and survive in this ever-evolving landscape. If you want to learn more about how we’re rising to the challenge, call our Hammond, IN, headquarters at (773) 927-5700. We’d be happy to provide you with more information.