Article
14 minute read 30 March 2022

Competing for talent: Recasting perceptions of manufacturing

Manufacturers continue to bridge the perception gap and enhance the workforce experience

Paul Wellener

Paul Wellener

United States

Victor Reyes

Victor Reyes

United States

Chad Moutray

Chad Moutray

United States

Kate Hardin

Kate Hardin

United States

David Beckoff

David Beckoff

United States

Kruttika Dwivedi

Kruttika Dwivedi

India

A call to action

There is good news to report in the Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute 2022 Manufacturing Perception Study (hereafter referred to as “the study”). Compared with our 2017 study,1 significantly more respondents believe that manufacturing jobs are innovative and more respondents are likely to encourage their child to pursue a career in the industry (figure 1).

Further, the pandemic has led to a new awareness of the critical nature of manufacturing in the United States and beyond. Many manufacturing teams were designated essential workers, partly due to the role they played in producing ventilators and PPE and keeping supply chains open (figure 2).

Key takeaways

Manufacturers are at a crossroads and have an opportunity in the wake of the pandemic to educate people unfamiliar with the benefits of a manufacturing career, while continuing to retain their postpandemic workforce.

Key takeaways for manufacturers should include:

  • Addressing the perception problem: Manufacturers are at an inflection point and can use the increased public awareness of the industry to emphasize manufacturing’s career opportunities and benefits, particularly to the public unfamiliar with the industry.
  • Promoting awareness: The industry can amplify the increasingly high-tech nature of manufacturing as well as transferable skills and training.
  • Leveraging local presence: Perception change starts at home, and local outreach continues to be effective in educating and attracting community members to manufacturing companies.
  • Attracting and retaining employees: Companies can step up their initiatives to engage new employees, involve existing employees to retain them, and evolve the work and workplace in response to customer needs.

Yet, amid the economywide workforce shortage, manufacturing companies continue to struggle to fill open positions. The study reveals a continued perception gap: Even as domestic manufacturing is viewed as increasingly important to the economy, public perceptions of manufacturing are not in line with the current reality. For instance, many Americans are not aware of the increasingly high-tech nature of manufacturing, which is improving employee productivity and providing cutting-edge, transferable skills.

This perception gap is likely contributing to the current shortage of applicants. According to the Q4 2021 Manufacturers' Outlook Survey, nearly 83% of manufacturers mentioned attracting and retaining a quality workforce as their top challenge.2 Similarly, almost 45% of manufacturers said that they had to turn down business opportunities because they did not have enough workers.3

In short, manufacturers find themselves waging a war for talent both globally and, more importantly, at the hyper-local level. This report highlights the perception gaps and suggests ways to possibly change these to align with the current realities of modern facilities, advanced technologies, and career mobility.

About the 2022 Manufacturing Perception Study

Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute have collaborated on a multiyear research initiative to better understand US perspectives on the manufacturing industry relative to other industries. On behalf of Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, an independent research company conducted two online surveys of US workforce and manufacturing executives in October and November 2021, respectively. The US workforce survey polled a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 Americans spread across 50 states. This sample is further divided into two cohorts based on their familiarity with the manufacturing industry. The “familiar” cohort includes people who work or worked in manufacturing or have friends or family members working in manufacturing. The “unfamiliar” cohort either knows about the industry only from media sources or has no knowledge at all. The manufacturing executives survey polled 100+ director-level and above executives to compare their perspectives with the workforce findings. The study also included executive interviews with more than 15 leaders from manufacturing companies.

The age-old perception challenge

While manufacturing’s image has seen an improvement in recent years, there is still work to be done. Our analysis of the surveys points to three areas that appear to be contributing to the misperceptions:

  • Limited public awareness of the manufacturing career opportunity. The study found that perceptions of respondents did not reflect the current level of technological advancement, benefits, and salary levels offered by manufacturers.
  • Rising competition for talent. Many manufacturing companies are increasingly competing with other sectors for skilled labor. There is a perception among those surveyed that jobs in high-growth sectors, such as retail or services, offer better salaries and benefits, which indicates heightened competition in global markets as well as local communities.
  • Changing workforce expectations. Expectations of work and the workplace have evolved over the past five years, with respondents reporting an increasing focus on well-being; purpose; diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); flexible schedules; and proximity of the workplace to one’s home.

Limited public awareness of the manufacturing career opportunity

The study shows that those familiar with manufacturing have a more positive image of manufacturing work and workplace culture (figure 3). Another misperception exists among recent college graduates, who may not realize that a manufacturing career would offer them the opportunity to use their skills and build a career path.4

Limited public awareness can also undermine appreciation of the technological advances in the manufacturing industry. Manufacturing has historically been an engine for innovation: Manufacturers perform the majority (58%) of private sector research and development.5 Similarly, advanced manufacturing generates more than 85% of all US patents and employs most of the nation’s engineers.6

The study results also demonstrate that those unfamiliar with manufacturing have minimal awareness of how modern technology, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, can make jobs safer and allow employees to do more productive work (figure 4).

Rising competition for talent

Competition for talent is more intense in the current tight labor market, with firms strongly highlighting career opportunities and growth paths. But manufacturers face a double challenge. They are competing globally with well-known retail, service sector, and technology brands for skilled labor, particularly as these sectors have grown rapidly in the wake of the pandemic due to changing consumer behavior. According to one executive interviewed, global companies compete directly when they are in nearby locations, increasing competition for local candidates. Simultaneously, many manufacturers continue to face competition for talent from local businesses, such as hotels and other service industry companies.

To combat this double threat, manufacturers may need to offer better wages and benefits and more flexible opportunities, among other options. Encouragingly, when comparing data on benefits and hourly wages, manufacturing compares better than retail and services in several aspects7 (figure 5). Further, data on the working population across industries shows that the tenure of manufacturing employees is among the highest when compared to other private sector industries.8

Expanding community outreach and engagement

To compete, outreach and engagement are typically necessary for manufacturers to build stronger familiarity with their brand name and to attract talent. One manager interviewed suggested local messaging has the greatest impact, and believed it’s essential to tailor to the local markets. The study analysis indicates that workforce expectations are aligned with manufacturers’ views on the best strategies to attract talent. These include offering internships or apprenticeships, certification or degree programs, and tours of manufacturing facilities for students (figure 6). One executive participating in our Interview mentioned the importance of community open houses at its facility, such as those organized as a part of yearly National Manufacturing Day activities throughout the country. These can help next generation to better understand the work place and the job opportunities.

Other manufacturers have found that spending time in the community and working or donating at community events can improve visibility and brand familiarity, while giving back to the community. One executive attributed the increased number of job applicants to their company’s community work during the pandemic. In addition to giving back to the community, these events and partnerships can be a good way to show and explain some of the products manufactured at the facility.

Changing workforce expectations

According to Deloitte’s State of the Consumer Tracker, the American public is more focused on well-being, versus 12 months ago.9 Nearly 50% of respondents in the Consumer Tracker showed a significant shift toward a greater emphasis on well-being. And 41% of respondents reported striving to center more of their activity around their home than was true 12 months ago.

Our workforce survey analysis shows a similar trend (figure 7). To address this growing focus on well-being and preference for working from home, surveyed manufacturers are planning to offer extended time off, new working schedules, and enhanced parental leave to support their workforce.

Elevating the workforce experience

To drive the desired business outcomes, manufacturers should focus on elevating the workforce experience as well as recasting perceptions of the industry. Opportunities for improvement range from promoting career growth, learning, and well-being to building the next generation of talent.

Promoting career growth and learning

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed who were familiar with manufacturing responded that manufacturing jobs have limited career prospects. However, when asked if they would opt for a manufacturing job with customized training and a clearer pathway for career progression, eight out of 10 respondents answered yes (figure 8).

Manufacturers should further invest in upskilling programs and designing career development pathways. For example, they could help form a learning ecosystem by partnering with technical schools, universities, and local communities for specialized and niche skills. In fact, some manufacturing organizations are helping fund such upskilling programs and opportunities. One example is Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME), a two-year educational program that offers professional development and technical training through a co-educational model where participants learn in school and on the job.10

Breaking the commuting barrier

Location is a fundamental consideration for workers when selecting a job opportunity. Surveyed manufacturing executives point out that hiring talent, especially younger employees, in rural areas can be particularly difficult. Accordingly, the majority of respondents in the study mentioned that manufacturing jobs are far from where they live. Indeed, Department of Commerce data suggest that counties with a high concentration of manufacturing are more likely to be in rural or micropolitan areas.11 The survey findings indicate that in some cases, even with higher pay, manufacturers are finding it difficult to fill a position that requires a daily commute or relocation.

Some companies have tried to better match people with their preferred location, recognizing it’s easier to hire and retain employees when they don’t have to relocate. Understanding that it would be impossible to completely avoid a daily commute, many manufacturers are looking at new shift work approaches such as three days with 12-hour shifts or four days with 10-hour shifts.12 In addition, companies are offering employees opportunities to work from the nearest location to their home and to take advantage of fluid shift timings.13

Well-being/flexibility

Recognizing the importance flexibility plays in attracting and retaining talent, the majority of manufacturers in the study have implemented at least one program designed to elevate the workforce experience. And nearly half—47% of respondents—indicated they have taken actions to increase flexible work options for their employees, in part responding to growing care needs (figure 9). One factor pulling primary caretakers away from manufacturing throughout the pandemic has been child care.14 Flexibility became a significant issue as schools and child-care centers were closed, and parents had to juggle their jobs and child care. Such flexibility is challenging in essential industries where jobs must be performed onsite. Notably, among the many adjustments manufacturers have introduced, 8% of surveyed executives agreed that their organization included new or extended child-care options. The focus on flexibility is likely to continue moving forward, as employees have come to expect it.

Manufacturers are also working to address well-being by transforming the physical working environment. Increased investments in this area include the actual physical space and the tools, equipment, and safety measures that are part of the work environment.

Mission/purpose

The study drew attention to the relevance of purpose-driven work and the value most employees place on connecting their work with their company’s vision. According to one surveyed executive, the messaging on their company’s mission and purpose seems more vital to today’s recruits than ever before. Younger workers generally want to know that they are contributing positively to something bigger than themselves and that they are making a difference.

Analysis of our study results bear this out: Close to half of those surveyed who agreed that work is an integral part of the experience responded that alignment and adaptability of work to the company mission, values, and purpose are important to them. Further, several executives interviewed perceive that millennial and Generation Z workers are increasingly focused on climate issues and the environmental implications of manufacturing and appreciate company awareness of these issues.

Deloitte’s analysis of employee testimonials confirms that having a purpose and making an impact are two influential factors contributing to job satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment. According to several executives surveyed, the pandemic has only strengthened this notion—people are proud to make products used by frontline workers.

DEI and belonging

As highlighted in our previous DEI research on the industry, manufacturing companies are increasingly focused on bolstering representation of women and other racially and ethnically diverse people in the workforce.15 They recognize that more diversity and balanced gender representation are likely to expand the available talent pool. Indeed, 84% of the surveyed manufacturing executives felt that their company is effective in fostering an equitable and inclusive environment for a new hire, but also acknowledge that more work needs to be done.

A successful DEI strategy entails that all workers across populations and identities are empowered to be their authentic self within the organization and feel safe, encouraged, and accepted within the work environment. Our study highlights employees’ growing focus on DEI at the workplace—the ability to be their authentic self was selected as one of the most important factors by one-third of the surveyed workforce. Deloitte’s recent research, The equity imperative, explains ways to promote equity in the workplace, and shows that 67% of US job seekers report that a diverse workforce is important to them when considering a job offer.16

Appealing to the next generation

More than half of the 18–24-year-olds surveyed in our manufacturing perception study indicated they are looking to switch jobs (figure 10), which could increase the pool of potential recruits for manufacturers. This cohort is less excited about the prospect of a career in manufacturing,17 but flexibility and a focus on more digital and technical skills—for instance, the opportunity to work in a smart factory environment—are likely to make the industry more attractive to them.

However, survey data indicate a mismatch between advertising methods: The surveyed younger workforce is more receptive to social media/television and news, whereas manufacturers reported finding other media and recruiting tactics more effective (figure 11). Partnerships with local high schools can help educate students and parents about manufacturing career paths.

Additionally, this generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in history.18 As such, having a robust DEI strategy that factors in an organization’s influence across workforce, marketplace, and society is another potential avenue for attracting younger workers.

The path forward: Manufacturing as a talent magnet

Survey responses and executive interviews highlighted innovative solutions to the challenges manufacturers face—mainly, attracting new employees, retaining current employees, and evolving the workplace to meet the workforce’s changing demands and expectations. As in our earlier research, we can apply the framework of Engage, Involve, Evolve to bucket these initiatives (figure 12).19 These categories are designed to amplify the positive aspects of manufacturing’s current image to attract employees, while focusing on what should be considered to retain skilled and experienced employees.

Engage

  • Sponsor internship and apprenticeship opportunities, as immersive, hands-on opportunities can deliver greater results than digital or media interaction
  • Leverage social media more to advertise hiring events
  • Revisit application policies by shortening the time for applications, background checks, and drug tests
  • Utilize employee referrals by offering referral bonuses and reducing the processing time for referrals
  • Increase visibility in the community and utilize local advertising more effectively
  • Pilot innovation through onsite job fairs, and encourage walk-in applicants
  • Proactively invest in sourcing a diverse talent pool by working with local educational institutions to develop open courses providing candidates with needed skills
  • Cater outreach activities to specific demographics in a factory area, accommodating multiple languages
  • Continue to communicate that salaries and benefits in manufacturing are competitive with those offered in retail and service industries

Involve

  • Implement a buddy system for new employees to receive guidance from their colleagues
  • Create specialized roles for retired/retiring employees to share their institutional knowledge with newer employees
  • Continue programs that foster an inclusive environment in the workplace, whether in the office or shop floor
  • Establish sponsorship programs and infrastructure for reverse mentorship, to connect successful, networked senior leaders with more junior colleagues
  • Encourage returnships—maintain an open-door policy to pave the way for the workforce to re-enter the industry

Evolve

  • Continue to boost efforts at scheduling flexibility, such as offering a compressed work week to balance well-being with work demands and providing options to take a day off during the work week
  • Shift work to accommodate holidays and family obligations
  • Realign both new and lateral roles for the workforce to explore a wide variety of growth opportunities
  • Revise job titles, levels, and job descriptions to allow comparability so that employees can better see where other job opportunities exist across the company
  • Continue to evaluate and address potential bias, unconscious or otherwise, in talent, succession planning, rewards, and performance management processes
  • Continue to increase visibility regarding career path options and empower people managers to have career conversations with their reports

  1. Craig Giffi, Michelle Drew Rodriguez, and Sandeepan Mondal, A look ahead: How modern manufacturers can create positive perceptions with the US public , Deloitte, National Association of Manufacturers, and The Manufacturing Institute, 2017.View in Article
  2. The National Association of Manufacturers, NAM Manufacturers' Outlook Survey—fourth quarter 2021 , December 20, 2021, p. 3.  

    View in Article
  3. Ibid.View in Article
  4. Insights gleaned from manufacturing executives’ interviews conducted in November 2021.View in Article
  5. The National Association of Manufacturers, “Facts about manufacturing ,” accessed February 5, 2022.

    View in Article
  6. Craig A. Giffi et al., Advanced Technologies Initiative: Manufacturing and innovation , Deloitte, 2015; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational employment and wage statistics ,” accessed January 24, 2022.View in Article
  7. Services here comprises establishments engaged in providing nonbusiness or professional services such as equipment and machinery repair (not included in the manufacturing industry); promoting or administering religious activities, grantmaking, advocacy; and personal care services.View in Article
  8. US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Median year of tenure with current employer ,” accessed January 24, 2022.View in Article
  9. Deloitte, “Global State of the Consumer Tracker ,” accessed January 24, 2022.View in Article
  10. Initially founded by Toyota, FAME is now managed by The Manufacturing Institute .  View in Article
  11. Brittany M. Bond, The geographic concentration of manufacturing across the United States , US Department of Commerce, accessed February 8, 2022.View in Article
  12. Insights gleaned from manufacturing executives’ interviews conducted in November 2021.View in Article
  13. Ibid.View in Article
  14. Deloitte, “The importance of manufacturing industry diversity ,” accessed January 24, 2022.View in Article
  15. Paul Wellener, Victor Reyes, and Chad Moutray, Beyond reskilling: Manufacturing future depends on diversity, equity, and inclusion , Deloitte, 2021.

    View in Article
  16. Deloitte Insights, The equity imperative: The need for business to take bold action now , 2021.View in Article
  17. Insights gleaned from manufacturing executives’ interviews conducted in November 2021.View in Article
  18. Karianne Gomez et al., Welcome to Generation Z , Deloitte, accessed February 21, 2022.View in Article
  19. Wellener, Reyes, and Moutray, Beyond reskilling .

    View in Article

Deloitte Manufacturing Perception Study Advisory Board: Benjamin Dollar, Amy Wolbeck, Luke Monck, Ethan Erickson, Kraig Eaton, and Briana Martin.

The Manufacturing Institute: Carolyn Lee, Keith Smith, A.J. Jorgenson, Gardner Carrick, Chrys Kefalas, Mark Isaacson, and David O’Brien.

The authors would like to thank Bhagyashree Addanki and Anuradha Joshi who provided research and analysis expertise in the development of this report.

The authors would also like to acknowledge the support of Clayton Wilkerson for orchestrating resources related to the report; Satish Kumar Venkata Nelanuthula for his survey expertise; Ethan Erickson for his input and review of all DEI content; Kimberly Buchanan who drove the marketing strategy and related assets to bring the story to life; Alyssa Weir for their leadership in public relations; and Rithu Mariam Thomas, Aparna Prusty, Molly Woodworth, and Sanaa Saifi from the Deloitte Insights team who supported the report’s publication.

Cover artwork: Kevin Weier and Sylvia Yoon Chang

2022 US perception of the manufacturing industry

The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte have embarked on their seventh study on Americans' perspectives of US manufacturing to understand the impact of outdated perceptions on manufacturing growth, how new job expectations and work culture are shaping the future workplace, the rising imperative to expand diversity and inclusion efforts in manufacturing and what measures manufacturers could take to solve the perception challenge while preparing their future workforce for success.

Paul Wellener

Paul Wellener

US Industrial Products & Construction Leader

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