State of the workforce: Get a full picture of the evolving industrial labor force

A portrait emerges from your survey responses on the actions and attitudes shaping our industry's response to workforce change.

By Thomas Wilk, editor in chief

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One of the truisms in industry is that the modern plant workforce is undergoing deep and rapid change. The generational change may be the most notable, as some plants report that the majority of plant workers only five years ago were Baby Boomers; now, Millennials comprise the largest percentage, with a stable number of Generation X workers positioned firmly in the middle.

As Managing Editor Christine LaFave Grace noted in her October cover story on the changing plant workforce, the full picture of the evolving industrial production labor force has to do with more than age: "It’s about women and members of immigrant communities pursuing shop-floor jobs; ... it’s about midcareer maintenance employees finding themselves rebranded as reliability experts; ... and it’s about plant owners and managers having to rethink how and when they schedule shift work" to offer employees greater work-life balance.

Leah Friberg, global education, content development, and public affairs manager at Fluke, sees these issues as also spanning a much broader market sector than manufacturing. "Companies that depend on margin now look at all aspects of operations for inefficiencies, trying to reduce overhead and protect that bottom line," says Friberg. "Managers are put in the hot seat of increasing productivity using existing resources while trying not to jeopardize employee satisfaction. There’s a point of diminishing returns where everyone is moving so quickly on so many tasks that the chain falls off and we are simply pedaling without moving forward."

As part of our 2015 coverage on this topic, Plant Services conducted a survey of manufacturing and industrial production professionals this fall, asking readers for their thoughts on a comprehensive set of workforce-related topics, from the effects of automation and smart connected machines on their facility's labor force to the qualities they look for in an employer. This article presents key trends and findings from that survey, sketching out a collective portrait of the actions and attitudes shaping our industry's response to deep waves of social, technological, and demographic change.


To get a better understanding of our readers, we asked survey responders some baseline questions. The vast majority of respondents fit into one of two generational categories: Boomers (60%, born 1945-1964) or Generation X (31%, born 1965-1980). Despite data from the Pew Research Center indicating that Millennials surpassed Gen Xers in the first quarter of 2015 to become the largest segment of the U.S. labor force, only 7% of respondents identified as being from the Millennial generation (born 1981-2000). Also, although research from the national trade group Women in Manufacturing indicates that women make up about 47% of the workforce in the United States, and comprise 27% of personnel in manufacturing, only 7% of survey respondents to date are women.

The job function breakdown for respondents was as follows: Engineers (22%) and maintenance/reliability specialists (19%) had the largest representation; plant managers (11%), department heads (9%), managers (14%), and supervisors (11%) followed, with operators (3%) at the low end and a combination of EHS, process control, quality assurance, work planning, and technical support specialists comprising the rest.

Respondents were also nearly evenly split when indicating whether their plant's location was urban (29%), rural (30%), or suburban (41%). When asked if they thought location had an impact on their organization's ability to retain talent, half of respondents thought it had no effect, while a majority of the rest (32%) thought it had a negative effect.

Skills and technology

One set of questions focused on the degree to which respondents thought that their facility was open to embracing new and/or disruptive technologies. When it comes to implementing reliability programs, most organizations are well down that road: 90% of respondents said they either have implemented a reliability program or have plans to do so. Respondents also agreed that reliability programs were a positive influence in keeping both newer and older workers engaged.

Opinion started to diverge in the areas of mobility/machine interfaces. Most respondents (72%) indicated that they were keeping up with machine interface advancements, but only 20% thought innovation in this area was crucial to keep older workers engaged. When it comes to mobile technology adoption, 73% said that their company encourages the use of mobile devices to get work done, and 93% reported feeling comfortable using mobile devices on job-related tasks.

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