The Future of Work: 5 Trends Manufacturers Need to Examine (and Understand) Right Now



Future of WorkBy Julie Davis, AEM Senior Director of Workforce and Industry Initiatives, SHRM-CP — 

It doesn’t require mystical powers to forecast the trends manufacturers would be advised to keep top-of-mind as they work to further align their talent strategy with their business strategy. Many have been relevant for some time now. Some were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s transpired in the years that have followed. All, however, require strategy, resources and thoughtful action.

With all that being said, here are the top trends those in the equipment manufacturing industry should pay attention to in both the near and long term:

Continued Labor Shortages

The writing is on the wall, so to speak. Labor force participation rates for men between the ages of 25 and 54 have been in steady decline, most notably since the 1980s. To make matters worse, they show no signs of improving anytime soon.

Decreased labor participation is influenced strongly by the opioid epidemic, but also by the transition of accumulated wealth from the boomer generation to the millennial generation. (The millennial generation is poised to become the wealthiest generation in history by 2030.) The ratio of available jobs to willing workers also continues to be so far out of balance that bridging the gap seem more like fanciful thinking than real possibility. Contributing to the skills gap, the percentage of available jobs that do not require a college degree is currently 6.8 million. Finally, long-declining birth rate started doing so in 1970 and setting records for lowest birth rate ever in the United States in both 2020 and 2021.

All of this is to say, for those manufacturers who have not felt an urgency to change how they recruit and retain employees, they will certainly to be afforded the opportunity to become creative moving forward.


With the ever-increasing skills gap, increasing number of total job openings, the normalization of career hopping, and the imbalance in representation in manufacturing of women and minorities, those who embrace the benefits of diversity will be the early winners.

According to a recent study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, only 29% of the manufacturing workforce is female verses 47% of the total working population. If manufacturers could increase that representation to 35%, it would result in an increase of 800,000 workers and fill the standing average number of manufacturing job openings. Furthermore, intentionally targeting minorities and second-chance citizens could move us from struggling to meet production demands into operations of growth, innovation and increased capacity. It’s critically important to move past passive agreement to targeted action in this space.

AEM's Workforce Solutions Toolkit provides easy digital access to workforce best practices designed empower your organization regardless of size, resources, location or sector. Learn more.

Knowledge Transfer and Succession Planning

Manufacturing has an aging workforce, so strategies must be put into place to prepare the industry to not just survive the next decade of massive retirements, but also to thrive over the long term. The lowest-hanging fruit is to make sure a process is in place to capture and transfer existing knowledge. It starts with asking questions of (and gaining knowledge from) seasoned employees who are preparing to leave the organization.

It also means engaging in discussions with ALL employees and asking them where they see themselves in one, three or five years. These are great conversations to have not just with an aging workforce, but throughout the organization.

Lastly, it’s important to try and make accommodations for knowledge holders to return to the organization in an alternate capacity While they may want to retire from full time structured employment, determine if an option exists for them to return with flexibility and reduced hours.

Ongoing Employee Development

With the rapid rate of technological change, the increasing need for automation and the continued struggle to find skilled talent, manufacturing will need to continually upskill, reskill and new-skill their workforce. This means either becoming the trainer, partnering with education or engaging in some combination of the two.

There’s no denying it. Employee development will become the new normal, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Ultimately, it will help organizations to:

  • Expand their recruitment base by allowing them to upskill employees with aptitude
  • Retain employees and offer them career pathways they would not be aware of or have access to in other industry sectors
  • Support other necessary initiatives like diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as manager, supervisor and leadership skill development that impact culture, communication, innovation, retention and healthier work environments

Employee-Driven Forces

One cannot talk about the future of work without acknowledging some employee-driven impacting employers. These include:

  • Employee mental health
  • Flexible work and how that translates into a production space based on employees’ specific needs and wants
  • Hybrid and work-from-home impacts on the skilled workforce
  • Career pathways and career advancement opportunities
  • Employee purpose, appreciation and recognition
  • Sustainability and corporate responsibility influences on recruitment and retention

Moving Forward

For employers to really address these workforce trends, the organizational structure and function of human resources will need to expand. It’s unrealistic (and unfair) for any organization to believe these industry level challenges can be added to the list of responsibilities of one or two people working in a functional scope.

Aligning talent strategy and business strategy requires forward thinking, partnership development, time and the opportunity to get outside of the organization and into the community. And while it may be easier for larger organizations with more people and resources to “move the needle” on these workforce trends, it’s worth it for manufacturers to be intentional and effective in their efforts to see sustained success over time.

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