Deloitte Study: US Needs 3.8 Million Manufacturing Workers by 2033, and Half Those Jobs Could Remain Unfilled

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In accelerating the evolution of the US economy, Bidenomics’ focus on the domestic industrial base has brought both the weaknesses and strengths of US manufacturing to the surface. Anyone who has been following advanced manufacturing in the 2020s (not to mention the prior decades) knows that one of the US’s biggest weaknesses in this context is workforce development.

America’s Manufacturing Labor Pool: The Numbers

As much of a problem as the dwindling US manufacturing workforce is currently, the future trajectory presents the most daunting challenge. The Biden administration’s wins thus far in the manufacturing arena are in no small part responsible for drawing attention to the problem. As the US’s reshoring efforts continue to gain momentum, America’s most critical sectors have hit a wall when it comes to making their forward-looking plans make sense in terms of what the expected state of the US workforce will look like over the next decade.

A recent study by consulting giant Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM’s) The Manufacturing Institute (TMI), “Taking charge: Manufacturers support growth with active workforce strategies”, brings some hard numbers to the table:

According to the study, “The US manufacturing industry could see a net need for as many as 3.8 million jobs between 2024 and 2033 as significant investment continues to drive growth.” Moreover, the study says, “Without significant changes, more than 5 in 10 or 1.9 million of these jobs could go unfilled if workforce challenges are not addressed through 2033.”

Additionally, in Deloitte and TMI’s survey of US manufacturing enterprises, 65 percent of those who responded pointed to “attracting and retaining talent” as their most difficult task, reinforcing that this “future” problem is already very much here, now.

Digital Skills May be in Highest Demand

Most relevantly for the additive manufacturing (AM) industry, the study finds that manufacturing jobs requiring digital skills “are likely to grow at the fastest pace between 2022 and 2032.” This would continue the existing trend that Deloitte and TMI uncovered, whereby “…there has been a 75% increase in demand for simulation and simulation software skills.”

On its own, this may seem to suggest that US manufacturers see the most urgent need for workers who can fill roles whose functions take place away from the factory floor. As the study’s authors note, however, “…for employees to successfully apply [digital skills and soft skills such as critical thinking], it tends to be important to have a strong foundation in the fundamentals of manufacturing.” This consideration is most crucial “in highly specialized sectors such as fabricated metal product manufacturing, and aerospace and defense”: for instance, “to learn how to effectively operate welding robots, it can be helpful — and often necessary — for a worker to have welding experience in a manufacturing environment.”

As always seems to be the case when it comes to AM, these themes equally represent both challenges and opportunities. From a pessimistic perspective, the AM industry in the US has to attract exactly the kinds of workers that are most sought-after by all other American manufacturing enterprises, in a business environment where attracting any manufacturing workers at all will only become increasingly difficult.

On the bright side, though, it is likely that AM already possesses the highest proportion of those kinds of workers of any American industry, which should make the industry more and more attractive to legacy manufacturing enterprises, as the latter seek all possible ways to keep apace with a rapidly shifting industrial landscape. In other words, AM companies are not only in an enviable position to compete in the emerging manufacturing business environment, but are in fact in a position to help much larger enterprises in target verticals compete, as well.

Manufacture Smarter, Not Harder

The prospect of 1.9 million manufacturing jobs left unfilled by 2033 is a difficult possibility to work around. Clearly, efforts from the public and private sectors — and above all, from consortia comprising both — will have to increase far beyond what we’ve already seen over the last several years.

However, increasing the pool of available manufacturing workers, alone, won’t fill such a large gap. That overall effort will have to be combined with a parallel movement on the process side of things, centered around maximizing productivity with automation and data visibility, i.e. smart manufacturing.

Alongside the Deloitte and TMI study, another recently released report, Rockwell Automation’s 9th Annual ‘State of Smart Manufacturing Study’, nicely encapsulates those themes. Perhaps the most critical finding in the Rockwell publication is that, among smart manufacturing processes, generative AI or causal AI were the second-largest drivers of return on investment (ROI) in 2023. (Cloud/SaaS were the largest smart manufacturing drivers of ROI.)

In this context, as well, the AM industry also appears to be among the forerunners of innovation, and a general move even more heavily in that direction seems inevitable. Of course, generative AI is still so new, that we don’t really know what the effects of combining AM with AI will be, in the long run. But by that same token, virtually infinite untapped potential exists, for increasing manufacturing worker productivity with AI.

Create the Workforce You Want to See in the World

For the AM industry, the most promising takeaway from the Deloitte/TMI study involves the finding that manufacturing enterprises are succeeding by taking the workforce development challenge into their own hands. As the study’s authors state, “Manufacturers seem to be focusing on investing in partnerships — and the worker pipeline and the work environment — to help create the workforce they need with the requisite skill sets and improve employee retention.”

More or less every well-established AM company includes a robust workforce development program as a key part of its operations, with companies like EOS leveraging their expertise in such matters as a core aspect of their revenue streams. The US Navy and organizations like BlueForge Alliance have been collaborating at an ever-increasing pace in recent years, to fill the existing and anticipated employment gaps in the submarine industrial base.

I touched on these same themes in an article I wrote about a year ago, entitled “Investors Could be the X Factor in 3D Printing Workforce Development”. Among others, Stifel North Atlantic has reinforced the thesis contained in that article’s title by leading the way, with ASTRO America, on the AM Forward Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) Fund.

So, filling 3.8 million jobs is indeed a monumental task, but many of the pieces required to succeed at that task are already emerging. The AM industry can make itself instrumental to the process of those pieces being put together.

Images courtesy of Deloitte

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