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I just got back from the 2018 SPE Thermoforming Conference held in Fort Worth, Texas, a true renaissance city that’s coming back from its less-than-glorious days when the area we stayed in was known as Hell’s Half Acre. Clearly, young professionals are moving to this area in droves, which, as luck would have it, made the perfect backdrop for one of my favorite sessions from the conference: a seminar titled “Hunting Unicorns, Talent Acquisition in Todays Plastics Industry.”

For those of you who have been following my posts, the fact that I chose this as a conference highlight shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, for years now, I’ve maintained that SencorpWhite’s biggest challenge is finding and retaining skilled employees, a.k.a., “unicorns”—and we’re not alone. As explained in a 2015 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, some 3.4 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will be needed over the next decade. However, 60 percent of these positions are likely to go unfilled. That means the U.S. manufacturing sector is in the midst of a shortfall of 2 million workers.

There are many factors at play here. First, the current economic expansion has turned the labor market upside down, creating more jobs than there are candidates to fill. Second, “baby boomers” are starting to retire, producing a significant exodus of skills and knowledge as they do. Third, the job pool is filled with the millennial generation, many of whom seem uninterested in pursuing careers in manufacturing.

As I have written earlier, I believe my generation did a disservice to millennials by telling them that manufacturing jobs were a losing proposition. Our schools and government reinforced that message and promoted college as the only path to success. Millennials listened. They went to college, racked up debt, learned unmarketable skills, and spurned manufacturing. Fast-forward to today, and it’s no wonder that so many high-paying manufacturing jobs are going unfilled.

What will it take to turn this around?

I am happy to report that at the seminar, I learned that more and more companies are recognizing the need to recruit, train, and retain young talent. I thought SencorpWhite was being creative in working with high school students, teachers, and counselors to promote the benefits of a career in manufacturing. I was blown away to see that others are doing the same—but starting in grade school! I also heard that manufacturers are restarting apprentice programs and working with trade schools on skill-enhancing curriculum. In fact, in the past few years, SencorpWhite recruitment of skilled employees is impressive, increasing engineering, assembly, machinists, welders, and service technicians by over 40%.  It’s this kind of innovative thinking that will help us close the current talent gap.

But until then, it looks as though manufacturers will have to continue being vigilant, seeking out the elusive millennial unicorns… and eagerly welcoming them to the shop floor.