Machinists, fabricators, and brokers fueling a manufacturing boom along Colorado's Front Range gathered in Denver last week wasted no time getting to the topic du jour -- workforce development. Speakers at the 2022 Rocky Mountain Machining & Tooling Association (RMTMA) Fall Conference parsed workforce topics throughout the day, from retention to recruitment to change management, in response to the sector's acute workforce need.
But a dearth of employees did little to dampen good feelings here about prospects for growth and new work. Demand for U.S.-manufactured products is strong -- generationally strong. A decade or so removed from an historic crash, U.S. brands and contractors have refocused on domestic manufacturing. Domestic supply chains are in. Outsourcing is out.
For suppliers here, it means that as prospects for growth are high even as most pursue opportunity with one hand tied behind their back. Focused on Machining's Justin Quinn, the outgoing RMTMA chapter president, summed it up: "It's easier to find a customer than a good employee."
Angela Rose's summary this week of challenges, opportunities, and needs of the manufacturers we've profiled so far in 2022, bears out the challenge of pursuing new business that's there for the taking. Managing growth is the third-most cited challenge behind manufacturing's two steady and pervasive headaches: supply chain and workforce.
Still, the need for human capital is this time framed against a backdrop of opportunity for domestic machine shops and OEMs that's fundamentally different from anything we've seen.
I sum up this generational opportunity in three macro-trends powering a new golden age of domestic manufacturing:
Offshore supply chains are irrevocably broken. Among the factors: We're decoupling with China. It may happen over time. It may happen overnight.
With business leaders joining the "Made in America" consumer movement, there's enthusiasm economy-wide for U.S.-made products. Domestic production options are more competitive as companies see brand value in manufacturing here.
We're nearer to solving the workforce problem than we think. Automation and technology are set to catalyze manufacturing employment, not diminish it.
We'll report on all the above in future editions, but today nothing is more important than funding a new wave of technology and automation in manufacturing. Outcomes would work at once to improve processes and products that would keep more work in the U.S., but also work to attract a new generation of STEM employees.
"As we grow this business, we don't want to just grow it by employees," he says. "We want to grow by automation, by use of robots, and different things we're interested in doing."
That makes for different prerequisite skill sets, and a pair of employees in their twenties are up to the task. "They're really adaptable to automation," says Curry. "A lot of the challenge is to keep them challenged. That's a big thing for us: We want to give them opportunities to be challenged."
Imagine manufacturers competing for engineering and technical talent graduating from the university system. It would fuel exponential employment growth in the sector, through a generation of new companies. We're nearing that point.
How to accelerate the momentum? For starters, it's crucial to align the vast ecosystem of money -- grants, opportunity funds, and the like -- toward helping small manufacturers automate.
And quickly: The Hill recently quoted Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who "noted that over the past decade, the number of small businesses in the defense industrial base shrank by over 40 percent. 'The data shows that if we continue along the same trend, we could lose an additional 15,000 suppliers over the next 10 years.'"
Tooling up small manufacturers is a vital step to stop the slide.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at email@example.com.