The skilled labor shortage isn’t going away anytime soon, and industrial employers need innovative solutions to address the problem. Per a report from the American Action Forum (AAF), employers in nearly every state will face significant shortages of qualified workers by 2029. These shortages are not confined to skilled trades, but industrial employers — warehouses, manufacturing facilities, and electrical distributors, among others — are expected to continue to face especially significant challenges over the next few years.
While many skilled laborers enjoy high-paying jobs with excellent benefits, fewer skilled laborers are available. Numerous factors have contributed to the issue, but by understanding these factors and finding creative solutions, industrial employers can use the current labor shortage to their advantage.
Aging Workforce Leads to Fewer Skilled Laborers
In the United States, about 10,000 people reach retirement age each day. Millions of Baby Boomers retire each year, and the pace accelerated in 2020, per a report from Pew Research Center. That demographic shift has affected the United States economy substantially, and it’s particularly concerning in the industrial sector.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce is age 55 or older. Thousands of those workers retire every day, and younger laborers aren’t replacing them quickly enough.
Economic Pressure Drives Skilled Workers to Other Fields
According to the Harvard Business Review, the Great Recession of 2007-2009 substantially changed employers’ expectations of workers. Many employers addressed the new economic landscape by using automation, and some skilled laborers left the workforce to pursue opportunities in other fields.
Employers now require workers with higher skill levels and more experience — and those skilled workers are in shorter supply.
Changing Perceptions of Trade Skills
Over the last few decades, enrollment in colleges and universities has increased, while the industrial arts have suffered. Many public high schools limited funding for shop classes in the early 2000s, and public perception of careers in construction, manufacturing, and other industrial fields has turned negative.
In one 1997 Wall Street Journal Almanac poll of high-school aged vocational tech students, “construction worker” was ranked 248th out of 250 possible occupation choices, ahead of only “lumberjack” and “dancer” (and just behind “cowboy”).
Pandemic-Related Catalysts Accelerated the Labor Shortage
The COVID-19 pandemic caused uncertainty that upended markets, dramatically accelerating the need for flexible manufacturing and distribution models. That meant a greater need for skilled labor, and while the federal government introduced initiatives to help workers develop skills and enter apprenticeships, those efforts will take time.
For employers, there’s some good news: In recent years, enrollment in technical schools has increased, partially due to the high cost of college degree programs. Still, industrial employers need skilled laborers right away — and those professionals remain in short supply.
To address the skilled labor shortage, employers have increased salaries and offered new benefits to qualified workers. That tactic can be effective, but some companies have found innovative ways to work with fewer skilled laborers. For many companies, that means helping personnel reach new levels of productivity by providing them with ergonomic equipment.
Skilled Labor Shortages in the Electrical Industry
The skilled labor shortage has had an especially significant effect on the electrical industry. Unfortunately, that trend may accelerate over the next decade. As a whole, the industry is healthy — but the workforce simply isn’t keeping up with the growing need for laborers.
The National Electrical Contractors Association estimates that 10,000 electricians retire every year, but only 7,000 new electricians start working. In other words, the U.S. electrical industry is losing about 3,000 skilled laborers annually.
For employers, the obvious solution is to raise wages, but that might not be enough to fill some positions. On average, electricians earn around $55,000 per year, with many industrial electricians earning more. As we addressed in this article, distributors and other employers may improve their chances of filling positions through investments in material handling equipment. The right tools can improve efficiency, reduce downtime, and give electricians access to everything they need to work productively.
How Employers Can Take Advantage of the Skilled Labor Shortage
For manufacturers, electrical distribution companies, and other industrial employers, the solution to the skilled labor shortage is fairly straightforward — and conveniently, it’s the ideal solution to any other problem: Embrace the principles of intralogistics and lean manufacturing to improve efficiency at every level. This approach reduces costs, maximizes floorspace, and retains more workers. Most importantly, adopting the principles of intralogistics and lean manufacturing can reduce the workload for skilled laborers while allowing employers to spend more resources on training.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. Through careful investments, employers can attract more skilled laborers while becoming much more flexible. This has benefits for both businesses and their workers; laborers aren’t underutilized, and fewer personnel are needed to complete essential tasks.
To turn the skilled labor shortage into an asset, employers should keep these concepts in mind.
Ergonomic equipment allows for better worker retention.
Research shows that offices with proactive ergonomics programs benefit from improved morale and less turnover. What’s true for the office is also true for workers on the floor; skilled laborers often work in physically challenging environments, and by emphasizing proper work positioning, employers can help personnel focus on their tasks.
Flexibility allows employers to retain low lead times — but also keeps skilled laborers from leaving the workforce, allowing for lower hiring & training costs. This may even extend to older workers, who might be willing to stay on longer (and pass on more knowledge to their younger counterparts) if working conditions are safe and comfortable.
By making relatively small investments in equipment, employers can realize these benefits over time while seeing immediate improvements in throughput. Ideally, this process should be approached with input from the workers; improving ergonomics requires communication and observation.
Adding ergonomic material handling equipment like Tilt Tables, Lift Tables, and Bin Dumpers can simplify tasks for both skilled and unskilled workers, reducing the number of man hours needed to keep an operation running.
Better data collection allows for a leaner approach.
Ergonomics is a crucial component of lean manufacturing (or when translating the principles of lean manufacturing and intralogistics to any other business). Data collection is another. To find inefficiencies, employers need to embrace the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and pay close attention to realtime data.
By collecting data and improving workflows, employers can reduce the workload for skilled laborers. Once again, this can improve job retention — and allow for better utilization of (often overworked) employees.
Solutions like the IIoT-enabled Will Call Drop Box can provide workers with instant access to the tools they need on the jobsite, while the IIoT model of our Spool Winding Trolley incorporates real-time inventory tracking for dispensing industry-scale orders of cable, wire, and conduit.
Efficient workflows help when hiring skilled laborers.
Skilled laborers want stability. That’s most attainable at an efficient, well-run facility, and even when improvements don’t directly affect the most skilled workers, a leaner approach frees up resources for keeping them on-staff.
Again, the right equipment can help this approach succeed. That might mean improving processes with ergonomically designed Order Picking Carts and Stock Picking Carts, optimizing battery room tasks with the Operator Aboard Battery Extractor, or employing Lift Tables and Tilt Tables to improve safety and throughput on the assembly line.
An innovative approach to material handling has obvious benefits for employers, but every member of the team benefits over time. When every member of the team begins looking for ways to improve efficiency, the work gets done more quickly and safely — and employers have more resources for training, hiring, and other essentials.
Ergonomic Material Handling Equipment Allows Employers to Address Skilled Labor Shortages
The skilled labor shortage will continue to affect industrial employers, but businesses that focus on improving work can find significant competitive advantages. At BHS, we engineer solutions that allow employers to find innovative new ways to make improvements.
The process starts with an assessment of your operation’s workflows, followed by careful investments in equipment that’s suited to the job. For example, the BHS Light Fixture Cart allows construction electricians to securely maneuver a full job of light fixture carts through the work site, limiting downtime and allowing electricians to stay focused. Tilting Elevator Conduit Carts improve maneuverability for conduit loads, while the Transformer Cart provides ergonomic handling for portable power units.
For manufacturers and warehousing facilities, BHS offers an array of Tilt Tables, Lift Tables, and Pallet Carousels to keep loads positioned at the optimal height and angle. Each table is designed for strength, precision, and durability, and numerous customization options allow employers to suit the work to the worker.
To keep skilled laborers in your workforce, make their jobs easier by providing the right equipment. Our team is ready to help your business find solutions for a lean, efficient approach. Learn more about innovative material handling and battery solutions from BHS by calling 1.800.BHS.9500 today.