H Skilled Worker

What are “middle-skilled” workers and how are they helping manufacturing realize digital transformation?

June 28, 2023
Middle-skilled workers encompass those with trade skills as well as those capable of working with automation.

Manufacturing companies in the United States are facing a significant challenge: a shortage of skilled workers to drive growth and sustain their operations. As of November 2022, there were nearly 780,000 open manufacturing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The struggle to fill these positions is particularly pronounced for middle-skilled jobs, which are crucial for industry's success.

A recent report titled "Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America's Middle Skills" highlights that 69% of HR executives believe their firm's performance is frequently affected by the inability to attract and retain middle-skills talent. But who exactly are these middle-skill workers?

Middle-skilled workers encompass those with trade skills as well as those capable of working with automation. They possess more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. The lack of a properly skilled workforce in this segment is hindering American businesses' global competitiveness. Despite millions of people remaining unemployed or underemployed, millions of job postings in the middle-skills realm go unfilled.

Several mega-trends—including automation, aging demographics, and globalization—have contributed to the decline in middle-skilled jobs across labor markets. This decline can be attributed to both attrition and transitions. Attrition refers to fewer young workers entering these jobs compared to older workers retiring, while transitions explain changes in career paths after individuals have entered the workforce.

Chad Mountray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers, has said that "There's no such thing as a low-skilled job in manufacturing anymore. To really thrive, we're going to need continuous learning and upskilling."

To address this skills gap and enable American manufacturers to thrive, companies must embrace advanced technologies and cultivate middle skills within their workforce. The manufacturing landscape is rapidly evolving and will be unrecognizable a decade from now. Workers need to leverage data and digital assets in new ways and embrace collaboration, rapid feedback, and agile command chains.

By deploying technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), or a connected workforce-software platform, companies gain a connected, mobile and social solution that can drive transformative results. These technologies enable workers to utilize digital platforms like visual factories and Kaizen tools to identify systemic problems, propose process improvements, and collaborate with their teams to implement them.

Additionally, workers can leverage these solutions to create instructional videos, troubleshoot errors, and develop a real-time digital skills matrix and learning packs. This empowers frontline teams to drive their own development, tap into mentorship resources on-demand, gain insights into new production areas, and progress into more responsible roles.

Scott Walker, who works at Nature’s Sunshine, a manufacturer and multi-level marketer of dietary supplements, has benefited from developing middle skills. Walker started in the material-prep area of the business, helping the company track weights with data automatically transferred into a SaaS platform.

“If I saw that there was a problem, I went after it,” said Walker. That philosophy, along with his creativity and hard work, quickly led to new opportunities, and in late 2019, Walker was promoted to process-support operator. By using and learning new technologies, Walker helped lead the company’s effort to transform quality inspections, sanitation records, and cleaning logs into digital processes.

The shortage of middle-skilled staffs presents a significant challenge for companies. This scarcity hampers the ability to compete globally and stifles the productivity and earning potential of the average American worker.

However, by recognizing the evolving nature of the manufacturing landscape and embracing advanced technologies, manufacturers can empower their workforce and create a thriving ecosystem of skilled workers to achieve sustainable growth. Employees like Walker can pave the way to seize new opportunities and to demonstrate the power of the middle-skilled worker.

About the Author

Claudine Bianchi

SVP global marketing QAD with Redzone