September was a good month for manufacturing workers, with more than 66,000 jobs added back to the economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, there is a long way to go to restore the industry workforce to pre-COVID levels—there are 647,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than there were before the pandemic started.

The gains have been across the industry, including automaking, with “many of the auto supplies employers looking for workers under every rock, if you will,” says Carolyn Lee, the executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, the workforce and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Notably, many of the gains over the past few months have been due to manufacturers shifting production to in-demand pandemic-related goods.

“We know there has been a huge ramp up in PPE (personal protective equipment) manufacturing, with other sectors like clothing manufacturers jumping in making masks, and our PPE manufacturers making more,” according to Lee, who is my guest this week on the Work in Progress podcast as WorkingNation continues to look at the industry during Manufacturing Month.

Perhaps surprising to note, along with the jobs gains, there has also been an increase in job openings. She says, “At a time when we still have millions of people out of work, we had 460,000 open jobs in the industry in August. We have a significant skills gap, and a significant need. We are not quite where we were when the recession hit, but we are adding back jobs.”

To this point, Lee says the gap between the number of open jobs and the number of workers who can fill those jobs is not new. She believes it comes down to skills and, importantly, misperceptions about the industry, something she and the Manufacturing Institute have been working to change.

“People think of manufacturing in this weird dichotomy. It’s this 1950s grimy, grungy manual labor, and it’s dark, doomy, and gloomy in a plant. Or they think it’s all robots and there are no people. The reality today is manufacturing is a really clean, bright, modern environment. It’s full of technology. It’s full of people solving problems.”

She explains that many people still don’t realize that manufacturing jobs are desirable, that they’re jobs that are interesting and have good career trajectory. And they don’t recognize that these are jobs that you need high skills for, but these jobs are available to them.

Lee says that once you break through these misperceptions, and you talk skills and opportunity, people see there’s a real career pathway there. “Some of the skills that you need to fill these jobs, you could get in as little as six to 10 weeks. Some of them could be four to six or 10 years, but you could get on the path with some certifications or credentials in just a matter of months.”

Lee and I discuss some of the specific skills you need and how you go about getting them. We also examine the types of manufacturing jobs that are hiring now, and in what parts of the country, in the podcast.

Growing Up in a Manufacturing Family

Toward the end of our interview, the conversation turns personal. Lee and I both grew up in manufacturing families. My father worked much of his adult life in a factory that made power tools and aerospace equipment. Lee’s grandparents met in the watch factory where they both worked. Her father and grandfather ran a screw machine business.

We agree that growing up in with someone working in manufacturing shaped our own perceptions of the value the people who work in the industry—people who make things—bring to the country.

“My kids know that manufacturing is going to be what saves us from COVID,” Lee says. “It’s all of the PPE, the biopharma, the vaccines, and the therapeutics. And that’s what’s going to be the turning point for us to reemerge from this terrible year.”

At the same time, she says, her kids know that everything around us is manufactured, and most people don’t think of that. “They think Amazon drops it off at your front door and that’s how things exist in the world. But unless you pick the apple off the tree, or the vegetables out of the ground on the farm, it’s probably manufactured in one way or another. People made that. And that’s a pretty cool thing.”

I couldn’t agree more.

You can listen to the full interview here, or find us wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 154: Carolyn Lee, Executive Director, The Manufacturing Institute
Host: Ramona Schindelheim, Editor-in-Chief, WorkingNation
Producer: Larry Buhl
Executive Producers: Joan Lynch, Melissa Panzer, and Ramona Schindelheim
Music: Composed by Lee Rosevere and licensed under CC by 4.0.

You can check out all the other podcasts at this link: Work in Progress podcasts

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