Charleston Needs Manufacturers More Than Ever

By: Carolyn Lee

By now, most people aren’t too surprised to see their neighbors wearing face shields and masks. But in the initial days of the pandemic, masks and other facial protection were a lot harder to come by. Manufacturers changed all that. The tireless work that local manufacturers did to produce facial coverings has been covered extensively in these pages. One example that stands out is the Charleston team of Science Applications International Corporation; they worked seven days a week during the initial spread of COVID-19 to make and distribute hundreds of face shield visors to local hospitals.

Without its manufacturers, Charleston and the rest of the country wouldn’t have been able to respond to the pandemic. But given their importance in the economy and the benefits of working in the industry, it’s surprising that there is still a shortage of skilled manufacturing workers. We need to fix that.

There are around 250,000 manufacturing workers across the state. These employees tend to be higher paid than those other industries, earning an average of roughly $75,000 annually in pay and benefits during recent years. And manufacturing is open to people of all levels of education, including high school graduates and those with advanced STEM degrees.

But it’s not just about providing a strong jobs base or keeping the economy flourishing—manufacturers proved themselves to be an integral part of the pandemic response. We’ve heard about how so many businesses shifted their operations to create medical equipment and supplies. They did everything they could to support frontline doctors and nurses, as we saw when Boeing airlifted more than 100,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to Charleston.

Considering how essential they are, it’s concerning that manufacturers are telling us that there aren’t nearly enough people joining the industry. In the 2018 skills gap study from The Manufacturing Institute—the workforce development and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers—and Deloitte, we found that the industry would need to fill 4.6 million manufacturing jobs by 2028. As many as 2.4 million could go unfilled if we don’t recruit more talent—putting our economy and possible even our recovery from COVID-19 at risk.

This problem is the result of a misconception. Simply put, too many people don’t realize that manufacturing is a modern, high-tech and high-skill industry. Manufacturing employees are involved in engineering, advanced robotics, logistics management and a seemingly endless variety of concentrations and skillsets. It can be as hands-on or hands-off as you want it to be, depending on where you work. There is no shortage of opportunities to grow, with skills and careers evolving as continually as the products we create. If more young people learn about the reality of what it is to start a career in modern manufacturing, we’ll go from a shortage to a surplus of talented job seekers.

Manufacturers are eager to help—we’re leading Manufacturing Month, which started on Friday, Oct. 2. with MFG Day, and provides Charleston manufacturing employers and others across the country an outlet to virtually showcase their business and provide information to students, parents, teachers and others interested in potential careers in modern manufacturing. It’s a chance to change minds and spark new career goals. To find virtual events or learn more, just visit creatorswanted.org.

Charleston’s manufacturers have a message: “Creators Wanted.” Once the next generation learns of the heroism of those in the industry, I’m confident they will heed the call.

Carolyn Lee is the executive director of The Manufacturing Institute.


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