US factories are buzzing and manufacturers are scrambling to find workers as the pace of hiring hits levels not seen in decades.
Friday’s September jobs report showed U.S. manufacturers added 22,000 more workers in September, boosting employment in the sector by nearly 500,000 over the past 12 months.
The nearly 13 million workers employed in American factories constitute the industry’s largest workforce since the Great Recession caused employment in the sector to plunge more than a dozen years ago. Since April, manufacturing employment has grown at an annual rate of around 4%, the fastest sustained pace of growth since 1984, when the sector had more than twice as many jobs in the United States.
And employers say they are now scrambling to fill even more jobs. The sector had about 800,000 openings for most of last year, despite the hiring spree, according to the Labor Department report.
With supply chains causing problems across the global economy, many U.S. companies that relied on foreign suppliers have focused on sources of parts and goods much closer to home.
“It took months for the parts to not only be made, but to arrive, and they decided they were willing to pay US manufacturing prices to get that much faster,” said Hayden Jennison, president of Jennison Corporation, a Carnegie, Pennsylvania company that makes everything. from fire fighting equipment to construction machinery. He said there was enough demand for his goods to staff his factory with an extra shift. But even though he pays between $20 and $30 an hour, he cannot find the workers he needs.
“Hiring has been a problem since 2020,” Jennison said. “Hiring experienced candidates who understand the industry and understand what they do has been very difficult.”
Typically, factory jobs and production are hit during economic downturns, as they did during the Great Recession. But even with fears of a recession mounting now, industry experts do not expect factory jobs to default back to their usual boom and bust cycle this time around.
“I think we’re in uncharted territory,” said Jay Timmons, CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. “For 100 job offers in the sector, we only have 60 people looking. I think it will take some time to fill this pipeline.
Timmons said wages in the sector have risen 5% over the past year, and he expects them to continue rising as manufacturers scramble to find labor qualified.
Experts say one of the biggest problems manufacturers face in attracting workers is their perception of the nature of the work.
“We often look at the footage of the build and we see the sparks flying and a welding environment and it may be a bit dirty, dark. But overall, our manufacturing jobs today are high-tech,” said Eric Esoda, CEO of a nonprofit organization providing consulting and training services to small and medium-sized manufacturers in northeast Pennsylvania.
One group of employers is looking for more help: women. Manufacturing remains a male-dominated industry, with only 30% of hourly factory jobs held by women, according to NAM. But that’s up from 27% just two years ago, and the Manufacturing Institute, an education and workforce development arm of NAM, has various programs aimed at increasing the share of female workers in factories to 35% by 2030.
Today, less than 10% of private sector jobs are in manufacturing, compared to more than 40% at the end of World War II. But it’s still a key sector of the economy, one that pays much better than many others. The Labor Department reports that the average weekly wage for manufacturing jobs is $1,250, or $65,000 a year, 11% higher than private sector jobs overall and 81% higher than jobs Retail.