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The Great Disconnect: Americans Don’t Understand Modern Manufacturing and They Should

Many Americans believe that American manufacturing is a relic of the past, rusting abandoned profession where weary men and women drudge through the day performing a single task for hours on end.

But, experts on modern plant floor operations have seen firsthand how wrong that perception is. Modern manufacturing is a dynamic profession where tech savvy workers are actively engaged in complex problems, free to innovate solutions, and they are highly compensated. Yet, there is a shortage of workers.

To better understand why the misconceptions persist or who’s to blame for the ongoing shortage of skilled manufacturing workers, a nationwide survey was initiated by Leading2Lean. Its purpose was to determine why what is being witnessed on the 21st century plant floor is so positive, yet so much of what is being heard about it is so negative.

Engine Insights was commissioned to conduct the nationwide survey at a 95 percent confidence level to address this great disconnect. Over 1,000 respondents who are representative of U.S. demographics took part in the survey.

The results are both surprising and revealing. Not only are the responses telling of Americans’ attitudes toward manufacturing, but the generational differences between the responses are equally insightful.

When asked about the trajectory of the U.S. manufacturing industry, 70 percent of Americans said they believe American manufacturing is declining. In the eyes of most Americans, the industry is a far cry from thriving. But, data from outside sources suggest the industry is doing much better than what most people think. In fact, the industry is growing.

One of the ways to measure industry growth is through the number of available jobs. According to recent data from the Manufacturing Institute, in the next decade, approximately 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, yet 2 million of these jobs will go unfilled. 1

Interestingly, 58 percent of Americans believe the number of manufacturing jobs is declining. This highlights the misconception that there are fewer jobs, when, in reality, there are millions that will go unfilled.

Another survey finds that only 55 percent of Americans agree that manufacturing jobs offer fulfilling careers and only 45 percent believe that manufacturing jobs are a good career option for younger workers. When many Americans think about manufacturing jobs, they don’t think of jobs that are dynamic, collaborative, or rich with problem-solving and technological innovation. Instead, many imagine the jobs as being monotonous, repetitive and dull.

Those who work in modern plant floor operations see the intrigue, complexity and creativity in their work. But, the industry hasn’t done a great job of sharing this with the rest of the world, particularly the younger generation. And it shows.

When looking at millennials, specifically those born between 1981 and 1998, only 49 percent believe manufacturing offers careers that are fulfilling. In comparison, 59 percent of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and 59 percent of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, think manufacturing offers fulfilling careers. This 10 percent gap could be the difference between a struggling labor force and a thriving one.

Modern manufacturing is a dynamic profession

Many young people are also unaware that manufacturing pays well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for manufacturing production and nonsupervisory employees in 2018 was $44,595.20, or $21.44 per hour. 2 That is almost three times the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour.

For managerial roles, the pay is competitive with the tech industry, according to data from a global job and recruiting company. In 2018, the average base pay for a manufacturing supervisor was $64,118. 3 For a manufacturing engineer, the average base pay was $71,679.4 For a director of manufacturing, the average base pay was $146,412.5 In addition to salary, manufacturing offers substantial benefits, such as insurance, paid leaves and bonuses, in comparison to other industries.6

Most Americans would be surprised that manufacturing offers such competitive pay and compensation. They would be shocked by the real nature of the work manufacturing employees perform. And, they would be floored by how modern, clean and advanced the factories really are.

Members of the manufacturing industry have an opportunity to shift how Americans view their industry by changing the narrative. They must become purveyors of relevant research, statistics and information. They must rise to the challenge and meet young people where they’re at. Utilizing schools, universities, websites, scholarships and social media effectively and responsibly are all key here.

In truth, the future of the industry depends on the next generation. The industry is at risk as young people continue to select other career paths because they do not see manufacturing as being a viable, long-term career. They may think the industry is going to be taken over by robots, leaving no jobs for humans, as 54 percent of millennials indicated in the Engine Insights survey. These millennials believe robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machines will replace all manufacturing jobs in the U.S., compared to 50 percent of Generation Xers and 47 percent of baby boomers. But, this isn’t the case either. As seen with technology innovative auto manufacturers and other modern case studies, human creativity and problem-solving are essential for robots to be effective.

Americans do believe that manufacturing is important. In fact, 79 percent of respondents agree that manufacturing jobs are important to the American economy. Additionally, 75 percent believe having a strong manufacturing sector is important to help grow the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, they don’t view the industry as offering adequate industry growth or viable career opportunities. The manufacturing industry can change this perception with the facts.

Let it sink in a bit. There is a shortage of skilled workers in a dynamic industry that’s vital to the American economy. Manufacturing has a bad reputation, but the reputation is at odds with the facts.

So, there needs to be a change in perception. But, it’s not going to be a single survey or a single company that is going to turn the industry’s image around. Everyone connected to the industry needs to come together to promote the opportunities and importance of manufacturing. Major manufacturers, suppliers, regulators and executives need to constantly reinforce all that’s good about their industry. Together, they can change the narrative.

It’s time to show the world that manufacturing is growing, that the industry is driven by innovation and technology, and that great jobs are available today. If this is done, it will secure the future of the manufacturing industry for future generations.

To learn more about the survey, please visit:


  1. Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte. “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond.
  2. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Economic News Release.”
  3. Glassdoor. “Manufacturing Supervisor Salary.”,24.htm
  4. Glassdoor. “Manufacturing Engineer Salary.”,22.htm
  5. Glassdoor. “Director of Manufacturing Salary.”,25.htm
  6. Manufacturing Institute. “Average Wages & Total Compensation for Manufacturing Workers.”

Keith Barr

Keith Barr, is an experienced and informed authority on the challenges and changes currently impacting the manufacturing industry. Keith has worked in maintenance and logistics, CRM, IT Service Management, cloud-based solutions and product development with companies such as Ivanti, Echopass, Sento and Sykes.

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