Harbour Results of Southfield, Mich., is in the midst of its annual survey of tooling companies, and the early results from 150 different shops show that staffing is the top concern.
"It's off the charts by big percentages: labor, finding skilled labor, getting skilled labor," she said. "It's not just the tooling guys. It's molders too, and it's not just about skilled workers. It's people saying, 'I need my $10-an-hour-worker to come to work everyday and run my molding machine.'"
While the industry works to create large-scale solutions, Harbour said companies of all sizes are investing in worker recruitment and retention. Those range from firms such as Toyota Motor Corp.'s Georgetown, Ky., plant, with an employee whose full-time job is to seek out new workers, to those with annual sales of $2 million to $3 million who create their own apprenticeship program working with places like Macomb Community College.
Finding talent means getting out of the shop and into colleges and high schools. Even reaching out to expose middle school and grade school children to the idea of a career in manufacturing.
"We have to make sure we are getting that awareness out there, so I work with a lot of students," said Leah Curry, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia Inc., which makes 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines for Toyota. "We have a lot of outreach programs going on not just for kids but also for their parents."
That need will only increase as more U.S. manufacturers adopt Industry 4.0 production. While a highly automated production floor may not have as many workers, those workers must be highly skilled.
"Manufacturing 4.0 is reliant on people to get and keep those machines running," said Doug Richman, vice president of engineering for Kaiser Aluminum and a member of CAR's T3 group. "That's going to require a different skill set today and tomorrow than it did yesterday."
Harbour noted, however, the high-tech equipment that is part of 4.0 can help sell students and parents alike on a career on tool shop floors.
"You find a 22-year-old and bring him into a plant, show him how every CNC machine has an iPad, and tell him that his training is on an iPad, that he'll take tests on that iPad.
"I was at a medical mold maker in Chicago where they have high cavitation and a ton of automation, and I saw at least 10 kids who were under the age of 25," she said. "They walk in there, see that equipment and say, 'I can work on this stuff. I'm excited by this.'"
Businesses that fail to invest in talent or technology will likely see their best young people walk away to work for competitors who are willing to make those investments, Harbour warned.
Most of all, hiring officials need to look beyond the old talent pipeline. Consider people who come from different backgrounds, and make sure you reach out to parents as well as potential young recruits.
Curry, who began her career working with robots on the shop floor, was one of handful of women with that job. She knows there is a real career available to young people. The message manufacturing has to bring is bigger than one company, though.
"If we could just get a TV show about manufacturing — something really good — then kids could see themselves doing it. When 'CSI' first came out, the number of women that were going into forensics tripled.
"If kids could see it on TV, then they'll believe it. We've definitely got to be more innovative in showing our careers. The same old things don't work anymore," Curry said.