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Sloan Center News

Flexible Redesign an Option to Fill Manufacturing Skills Gap

1 October 2010—As the aging of the workforce begins to further pinch the US economy, the manufacturing sector could avert more tough times by implementing more flexible work options. Re-designing jobs could be an economic, effective way to both recruit and retain talent, suggests Stephen Sweet, co-author of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work’s recent study on talent pressures in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, with top skills reportedly in short supply, and significant replacement costs for workers leaving the industry, the declining American manufacturing industry is bracing itself for further contraction.

However, more frequently in recent years, it has been the lower skilled jobs leaving the country - the higher skilled jobs are tending to stay. These include sophisticated hands-on skills, but management skills also. In fact, among over 100 manufacturing enterprises responding to the Sloan Center on Aging & Work’s (2009) Talent Management Study, top skills currently in short supply in the manufacturing sector include: Management skills (37.4%), legal skills (33.3%), sales/marketing skills (28.2%), operations skills (24.4%), and technical computer skills (22.1%). And as Baby Boomers retire, the need for these skills is likely to increase significantly.

One solution to bridge this skill gap is to reconfigure these jobs, two thirds of which are currently held by men. “One of the reasons women are under-represented is because of rigid schedules - the lack of flexibility,” says Sweet. “Employers could benefit by rethinking these rigid practices, and employees could benefit as well.”

“We also have workers at the later stage of their careers wishing to scale back, and yet the prospects for phasing into retirement are not offered. It's either you're in or you're out - and that's really problematic in a number of respects. If there were a way of reducing hours, then we'd have more people gamefully employed.”

And flexibility can add cost-savings as well. The average replacement cost for a typical manufacturing worker is nearly twice that of an employee in another sector. But cost estimates do not factor in knowledge and social connections lost when older workers leave their jobs. Flexible practices with respect to where you work and when you work, and being able to take breaks during your career, can help employers transition this knowledge to other employees and save costs long-term.

Of course, in some sectors, such as retail, flexible work policies may not be to the employee benefit – flexibility may be imposed on the employee. “But on the whole,” explains Sweet, “flexibility helps workers manage work-family concerns. And for workers who are older, flexible schedules may be more desirable.”

To read/download Talent Pressures and the Aging Workforce: Responsive Action Steps for the Manufacturing Sector, click here »

For more on the Talent Management Study, click here »

To listen to Steve Sweet interviewed by American Workforce Radio, click here »