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Editorial: Invest in your workers now for a productive future

In explaining why manufacturing jobs aren’t growing faster, in the end, it comes down to the proverbial chicken and egg.

The weak economic recovery has employers treading cautiously when it comes to growing staff or wages. But without payroll growth to boost consumer spending, demand for goods remains weak. And as long as demand is weak, employers hold back.

Still, there are hopeful signs in the manufacturing sector. Unemployment for factory workers more than doubled to 12.6 percent between 2008 and 2009 but quickly rebounded. In June, it was at 6.9 percent.

Wages and training continue to be the focal points of discussion on how to spur manufacturing employment growth. But both issues are complex and challenging.

Average manufacturing wages appear to be family sustaining, but high-earning factory workers tend to be older, so the averages don’t reflect compensation at the starting end of the scale. Moreover, income statistics are being skewed by hours worked — in some cases, more overtime in the face of leaner staffs and, in others, fewer hours caused by fewer orders. Rising benefits costs take an ever-bigger bite out of paychecks as well. Meanwhile, employers face pressure to keep costs and prices down.

Young people preparing to join the workforce shun factory jobs for a variety of reasons, and nearly every industry is looking at a skills shortage now if not soon. And most 21st-century factory jobs require considerable investment in time and tuition in a world where technology acceleration means a never-ending race to stay current.

The current economic situation is an opportunity for employers, however, and not just in manufacturing.

Now is the time to move forward, albeit cautiously, and select the best of the best for the openings you can fill. Invest in training them and trust that, when times improve, they’ll want to stay because of the quality of the work environment and continuing education you offer. Reward performance where you can.

Seek out partnerships with training programs and schools in your area — they are just as eager to run job-producing programs for students as you are to make the right hires.

And make sure your state representatives know your needs. It is the commonwealth, after all, that runs the largest employment agency around through CareerLink, and controls the purse strings for most of the training available.

These are uncertain times, to be sure. But the winners will be proactive in laying the foundation for a strong future.

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