Talent Leadership

Recruiting in manufacturing in 2023

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

April 5, 2023

The past few years have been a turbulent time for the talent market. From the Great Resignation to quiet quitting, it feels like there’s a new phrase to describe the latest trend every few months. Yet many news stories tend to focus on the tech industry, which is only one small slice of the working world.

In this new series, we’re doing a deep dive into several industries—financial services, manufacturing, and life sciences—to understand how they’re approaching recruiting in 2023. What sets them apart from other industries? What are some of their specific challenges and opportunities? And how can technology support them as they strive to meet their hiring goals?

For this post on recruiting in manufacturing, we spoke with experienced talent acquisition (TA) pros to identify the top trends and themes in this industry. A big thank you to everyone who participated, including Daniel Pugh (Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock), a VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company, and a Director of Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer. 

Looking for a high-level overview of our findings? Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • The manufacturing industry has seen strong job growth over the past few years (due to international supply chain challenges and legislation like the CHIPS Act), but filling all those open roles and dealing with turnover are top challenges for manufacturing employers.

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is a major area for improvement. Women only account for about one third of manufacturing employees; and the proportion of Black, Asian, and Latinx employees is even lower. 

  • Many manufacturing companies are increasingly competing with other sectors, including well-known retail, service sector, and technology brands. 

  • Digital transformation has altered the type of jobs that are available in manufacturing, but the majority of candidates are not aware of this and still have outdated perceptions of manufacturing jobs.

  • While work in manufacturing has traditionally been rigid in regard to work location and hours, employers are looking for ways to innovate and become more flexible to remain competitive.

Ready to dive into our findings and hear what the TA professionals had to say? Keep reading to discover the recruiting challenges, opportunities, and software requirements for manufacturing TA teams.

Recruiting challenges in the manufacturing industry

Manufacturing employers face many challenges when it comes to recruiting, including inflation, a high volume of candidates and requisitions, overcoming negative perceptions of the industry, and an increased focus on DE&I. Let’s take a closer look at each factor. 

Inflation is driving compensation up

One of the biggest challenges for recruiting in manufacturing is inflation: it’s driving up compensation and eating up company profits. Employers are experimenting with a range of tactics—from starting and retention bonuses to shift premiums and part-time hours—to appeal to candidates. Some employers are even considering taking more of a “gig economy” approach to work to remain competitive. 

“At WestRock, we tried to incorporate ‘the gig economy’ into our hiring plan as much as we could to accommodate when and where we could get folks in. After all, if we can't run our machines, we can't get product and we can't fulfill customer orders. I'd say inflation was our biggest hurdle.”

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

Speaking of competition, it’s not just other manufacturing companies that employers are competing against. Workers can now consider a range of employers across several industries since wages have gone up across the board. 

“For shop floor workers, we're competing with everyone—Target, Costco, Amazon, McDonalds—because of wage inflation. People will come to work; and we've done everything from sign-on bonuses to retention agreements. But if they can make two dollars more having a different shift, what’s the reason to stay with an employer?” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a Global Automotive Parts Manufacturer

Recruiters are typically full-cycle or HR generalists—meaning they’re spread thin

It’s rare for manufacturing organizations to have dedicated sourcers. The majority of their TA staff are full-cycle recruiters or HR generalists who have to do everything. Tasks aren’t broken out by different stages of the funnel and assigned to different people—there’s one talent person who does everything from scheduling interviews to running background checks. And they’re being asked to do all of this for a large volume of both candidates and reqs. In some cases, the HR person is also responsible for safety on site. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that recruiters in manufacturing are overwhelmed and stretched thin. In these cases, it’s easy for recruiters to drop the ball, whether that means not following up with candidates or forgetting whom they’ve already engaged with. There’s very little opportunity for proactive, thoughtful recruiting or building relationships with candidates. 

“Most of our recruiters aren't full-time recruiters; they're HR people who are going into the plant with a to-do list for the day. That goes out the window when you’ve got an entirely different issue come up, and before you know it it’s five o'clock. You've been there for 11 hours. It's just the beast of working in manufacturing production.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a Global Automotive Parts Manufacturer

Talent attraction and perception of the industry

Attracting talent and building a positive employer brand can feel like an uphill battle in the manufacturing industry. It’s not just about overcoming negative perceptions of the industry as a whole—recruiters must also convince candidates that a job in manufacturing is the right fit for them personally. Many job seekers don’t ever consider manufacturing as a career, primarily because they hold an outdated image of the industry. 

There are several hurdles to overcome—especially among younger talent—including the perception that manufacturing work is boring, lacks creativity, and is harmful to the environment. Women also tend to see manufacturing as unappealing since the industry is predominantly male. 

Yet that’s not the whole story. For many Americans, there’s a considerable nostalgia for manufacturing as a profession. In fact, a 2017 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that eight in ten Americans have a high opinion of manufacturing, seeing it as essential to economic prosperity and a high living standard. The same study found that three in four Americans think we should invest more in manufacturing.

One of the major obstacles for recruiters involves reconciling the public’s perceptions of the industry with the current reality. The 2022 edition of the Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute study found that most people don’t understand the current level of technological advancement, benefits, and salary levels offered by manufacturers, which discourages many job seekers from considering careers in manufacturing: “Many Americans are not aware of the increasingly high-tech nature of manufacturing, which is improving employee productivity and providing cutting-edge, transferable skills. This perception gap is likely contributing to the current shortage of applicants.” 

“From a manpower perspective, auto has been really difficult in the sense of talent attraction. Some of our forging facilities are not nice environments. They're loud, they're dirty, they're hot. So from an hourly perspective it's been difficult, and we've had to rely on temp to hire, even direct hire recruiting agencies for our hourly positions.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a Global Automotive Parts Manufacturer

Location doesn’t appeal to workers

Location is another challenge for manufacturing employers. It can be difficult to hire talent—especially younger employees—in rural areas. And even when offering higher pay, many manufacturers are struggling to fill positions that require a daily commute or relocation. 

In response to this situation, some employers are experimenting with new approaches to shifts, such as working 3 days a week with 12-hour shifts or 4 days a week with 10-hour shifts. Some companies are also offering employees opportunities to work from the nearest location to their homes and to take advantage of fluid shift timings. 

Recruiting for both high-volume and niche roles

There’s a huge demand for workers across the manufacturing industry. Job openings are hovering near all-time highs at 800,000 according to Deloitte’s 2023 manufacturing industry outlook

Recruiters in manufacturing are often hiring for both high-volume and niche roles, which each require different strategies. The high-volume roles tend to be needed right away and experience higher turnover, while niche roles require more personalization and touchpoints. 

“There are lots of different things that are very niche that we might be recruiting for. Plant managers, plant superintendents, shift leaders, department leaders, shipping receiving managers, specific engineering type roles—that outreach is going to be a lot different than it is for high-volume. Those recruiters may have 15 to 30 roles at any time, whereas high volume is 50-plus. There’s a lot of automation you can use when you have high volume like that, versus the more high-touch, personal engagement that you would normally have with candidates.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

Some of the common roles across manufacturing include:

  • Salaried skilled trade: plant/production supervisors, engineering, operations managers, electricians, and controls engineers

  • Hourly trade: entry-level roles like product associates, warehouse workers, factory line assembly workers, and floor operators

  • Home office/corporate: sales, marketing, ops, finance

  • Early in career: college interns and graduates across all departments

“We have high-volume versus more executive-type recruiting. High-volume is all of our light industrial that support the warehouses and plants. It's a lot of truck drivers, forklift drivers, production technicians, and warehouse workers. That's the bulk of our hiring. Corporate is your classic finance, sales, marketing, and HR roles.” 

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

With the digital transformation in manufacturing, many employers are now looking for talent with niche skill sets like IT architecture and cybersecurity. And finding candidates with these skills who want to work in manufacturing adds another layer of challenge to recruiting. Recruiters find that these highly-skilled candidates have a strong bias against manufacturing that’s difficult to overcome. 

“I was speaking with a super-intelligent college student and she said, ‘I really want to do programming, but not for manufacturing.’ So part of the issue is from a societal perspective, like the incentives that the government can give to attract students into those fields.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer 

Diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I)

Like employers across many other industries, manufacturers face increased pressure when it comes to DE&I. The perception of manufacturing as a traditionally white, male-dominated industry is rooted in reality—only 33% of manufacturing roles are held by women and only 27% of women say they feel confident about their career advancement opportunities. And nearly 80% of manufacturing employees are white. 

The population of manufacturing employees is aging quickly, which gives more urgency to the need to diversify the workforce. And with the majority of workers saying a diverse workforce is an important factor when considering a job, this presents a significant challenge to manufacturing employers. How can they attract diverse talent from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds if they haven’t been able to attract these types of candidates in the past? 

“One critical element on the hiring side is diversity. Not necessarily always diversity of ethnicity or gender, but different ways we can connect with and attract a range of talent.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

To commit to DE&I, manufacturing employers are looking at several aspects of background and identity and considering how they can appeal to other populations, such as people with hearing impairments or workers over age 50. 

“DE&I: That's the big thing everyone's talking about. How do I hire a more diverse population? We're starting to look at populations that we haven't approached. Our plants in Mexico, for example, created a program for people that are hearing-impaired to work for us. We taught sign language to our supervisors. There was a whole program to support reaching out to this group that maybe wouldn't have thought they had an opportunity to work at a plant. I'm asking: What are things that are hindering us from being an employer of choice for different types of groups that may just assume they can't work for us?”  

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

Manufacturing recruiting opportunities

While it’s clear that recruiting in the manufacturing industry has its fair share of challenges, there are also plenty of opportunities—including changing brand perception and employer branding, digital transformation, and accessing early-in-career talent. 

Changing brand perception

Manufacturing employers have a real opportunity to tap into people’s sense of pride for homegrown manufacturing. If they’re able to connect this sentiment to a modern employer brand, they’ll be setting themselves up to recruit the diverse talent they need. 

Highlighting cutting-edge technologies and emphasizing values like taking pride in what you produce, supporting local communities, and putting safety first will be key to changing brand perception. There’s also work to be done to educate candidates about the highly-skilled roles. rich opportunities, and benefits that are available in this industry. Manufacturing roles can be compelling and attractive, but many candidates are simply unaware of this. 

To help accelerate this brand perception, manufacturing employers can focus on streamlining the hiring experience so candidates feel they’re being treated with care and respect. They can also invest in employer branding efforts to further amplify their updated employee experience.

“Our leaders should be empowered to make decisions and not drag a recruiting process out for days and days. There's also an element of automation and communicating with candidates throughout the process. I tell my recruiters all the time: We can't place everybody we talk to, but somebody could walk away from an interview and say, ‘Hey, that's a company I really like. I'm disappointed but I'm gonna tell somebody else it's a great place to work.’” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

“We recently engaged a company that's going to help redesign our EVP and co-create our marketing story. They'll host and rebuild our career site and be our agency of record for where we should advertise, including tracking what advertising is working and what isn’t based on our objectives.” 

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

Taking advantage of the digital transformation

The majority of manufacturing firms are focused on digital transformation—a process that’s often referred to as “Industry 4.0.” This involves bringing big data, systems integration, and cloud computing into their infrastructure. But digital transformation doesn’t just affect the way these companies operate when it comes to manufacturing—it can also transform the way they approach recruiting. Employers that upgrade their TA tech stack will have a competitive advantage to support this transformation.  

“We had a very outdated ATS and we knew that was an area of opportunity for us. We had no talent network. We were hiring thoughtfully because of potential economic headwinds. So even through 2020, none of our talent acquisition team was affected by layoffs. That was huge. We’re continuing to build this muscle of recruiting. I think we've done a nice job with upgrading technology in those spaces and automation.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

“In auto, there's a huge push for Industry 4.0, especially with the lack of manpower and talent. When it comes to the shop floors and our manufacturing equipment, the question is: How can we automate things to help our resources here? Gem is an example of automating our reachouts to talent, reducing the amount of time a recruiter would spend doing just that.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

More flexible and attractive working conditions

The high demand for workers is leading manufacturing employers to consider how they can become more attractive—not just in terms of the overall purpose and narrative of the work, but in employees’ day-to-day working conditions. They’re discovering that the traditional rigid approach to working hours is unappealing to younger workers. 

Taking a page from retail employers’ books, manufacturing companies are considering how to take a more flexible approach to shifts, making it easier for workers to choose convenient working hours or swap shifts. Forward-thinking manufacturing employers are experimenting with tactics like retention bonuses, additional pay for picking up shifts, and part-time roles in addition to extended time off and enhanced parental leave. 

“For so long, companies have treated frontline workers as disposable: ‘If this doesn't work out, I'll just hire another person.’ Now all of a sudden, frontline workers have been in such demand. The labor market has really dried up because we just don't have enough people to supply the needs of companies. And so companies are saying, ‘Wait, maybe I need to pay you more. Maybe I need to treat you better. Maybe you need work/life balance. Maybe I need to start providing that.’” 

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

Tapping into the possibilities of recruitment marketing

Manufacturing employers have an opportunity to shape the narrative around their career options through recruitment marketing activities. This often involves recruiting events: participating in career fairs and trade shows to get in front of candidates and increase awareness. Other popular recruitment marketing activities involve leveraging local outreach to educate and attract community members. Manufacturing employers are also offering internships, apprenticeships, and tours of facilities to attract young talent. Spending time in the community and participating in or donating to community events is another popular approach. But some employers are also adapting their marketing to the digital age by adding online advertising into the mix. 

“In a lot of cases, outbound activity is still key. But I think having a hybrid of outreach, branding, and advertising is important. I've had a lot of success doing geofencing ads through Facebook, for example. So we can pick a certain area and run ads that are directly mapped to either our application or an event. It continues to drive traffic while there's outbound activity going on.”

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

“We’ve found that we get a lot of traction from in-person career fairs, and we use Indeed hiring events to advertise those career fairs and get people to sign up and RSVP. We do radio ads, we have billboards—a lot of that group is still very old-school from that perspective. We post all of our jobs on Indeed and the basic sites. We don't use a lot of manufacturing-specific sites, because every time I've done that, I just don't see the value.” 

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

“With Gem, we can quickly measure the success of our events, especially when it comes to campus recruiting. We did a military virtual career fair and I was able to share the link in the QR code in our virtual welcome booth. People are going in and joining our talent community. The events and the QR codes worked really well. We were able to get that in before we did all of our fall recruiting in the United States.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

Focusing on early-in-career talent

With the traditional manufacturing workforce reaching retirement age, employers have an opportunity to identify and shape early-in-career talent. By offering training and learning to young workers, they can create a pipeline of future talent for their workforce. This can involve forming partnerships with local high schools, trade programs, and community colleges as well as offering internships or apprenticeships. 

“What keeps me up at night is where to find the talent, because there isn't enough of it. How are we as a society making sure that those future generations want to do the roles that we're going to need?” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

“We have an early career team, so we staff a certain number of interns for different verticals within the organization that are specific to home office, or to corporate functions like IT, human resources, supply chain, procurement, sales, marketing, and legal. Those sorts of internships are getting most of our attention; but we're starting to do more on the engineering side—sending folks to trade school to develop a certain skill set so we can deploy them.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

While many programs have typically focused on home office roles, employers are also seeing a growing need to develop the pipeline of technical talent. This might involve working with technical schools and universities to fund upskilling programs.  

Recruiting software requirements for manufacturing TA teams

As the manufacturing industry undergoes a digital transformation, manufacturing TA teams feel an increasing need for modern recruiting software that allows them to take a data-driven approach to recruiting, source more efficiently and effectively, and build relationships with candidates.  

Data & metrics/analytics

Within manufacturing, TA teams don’t generally have a dedicated recruiting operations or analytics role, which makes it hard to be data-driven. And without access to basic metrics or passthrough rates, it’s nearly impossible for TA teams to be strategic. Another challenge is that company leadership doesn’t necessarily care about recruiting metrics in the way they might in other industries. Manufacturing recruiters say business leaders’ primary concern is how much money they spend on recruiting agencies and whether a role is filled when it needs to be. They see everything else as unnecessary information. 

“The only data point that fully gets leadership’s attention and focus as it relates to talent attraction is the amount of money we spend on recruiting agencies. I mean this in the nicest way—they don't really care about all those other things. They just want somebody in the chair the moment the chair opens.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

TA professionals in manufacturing are looking for better data and sourcing analytics to help them identify which channels work and which positions are harder to fill so they can take actions like allocating ad budget accordingly. They’d like to have access to data that allows them to be more predictive about average time to hire, pipeline health, and sourcing analytics. 

“I work very closely with our HR Director of Analytics. How many hires do we have globally in our system? And what's the source of those hires? Time to fill is huge. We've now started to implement hires versus terminations by month and it's really eye-opening. I'd really like to continue to grow out that team. And I wish I had an analyst that worked with me.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

“I would love to get better sourcing data. I would love to have a dashboard that shows me what's working and what's not from a sourcing perspective in terms of media. So we could say: ‘this position normally takes this long to fill and gets low candidate volume, so we're going to sponsor it on Indeed with extra money because we know we need it.’” 

- VP of Talent Acquisition @ a Fortune-500 beverage company

“We’re a data-driven organization. When we set an expectation and we have the data to back it up, we typically meet those goals. So when we have the data right at our fingertips, that drives more activity and lets us stretch ourselves from a goal-setting perspective. Seeing that data real-time helps us to benchmark; and now I can start setting expectations with the recruiters that maybe historically haven’t been there before.” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

The good news is: the technology is out there to give these teams what they need. Tools like Gem allow recruiters to drill into their different outreach channels to see what’s most effective. 

From a Gem perspective, it’s been great to see how our outreach is converting to hires—or even how certain groups of candidates are converting throughout the process. The other piece that’s helpful is looking at: what source-of-hire gives us the highest conversion rates? And how can we share that best practice or success with other recruiters that may be looking for talent in the same place?” 

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer


Just as it’s rare in manufacturing to have dedicated recruiting operations or analytics roles, it’s typically uncommon to have dedicated sourcers. Most TA professionals are expected to do full-cycle recruiting. But some companies are beginning to see the opportunity to develop their sourcing capabilities—this reduces agency spend and is the key to promoting DE&I. Plus, many companies have massive databases of talent they haven’t really tapped into. 

“We're beginning to build a sourcing team. The ultimate goal is to continue to support our senior talent acquisition partners when it comes to utilizing different sourcing tools, different avenues where we can create pipelines of talent. It’s supporting an in-house model. I'm a big advocate for it. We can house a lot of that data and there are a lot of things we can do from a campaign and sourcing capability. And we can leverage the data that comes in from applicants. I think there's a lot of power in building that model in-house rather than going external.” 

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock 

Long-term nurturing with talent candidate relationship management (CRM)

Manufacturing employers are beginning to realize the value of nurturing relationships with candidates over the long term by using a candidate relationship management (CRM) tool that can automate and streamline this type of communication. This approach is especially beneficial with younger talent like high school or college students who may apply for internships but won’t be ready for full-time opportunities for several months or years. It’s also a powerful way to continue to engage with people who’ve applied for roles in the past and may be open to exploring other opportunities in the future. 

“I think the manufacturing industry sees the value in CRM because they've experienced what it’s like not to be able to effectively engage talent. The next step is not just engaging new talent, but also reusing existing talent or keeping people nurtured, keeping ourselves at the forefront of talents’ minds.”

- Director, Global HR Operations & Talent Management @ a global automotive parts manufacturer

“With a CRM, I have the ability to look at your social profile, where you might be, and see if this is a good time to connect. That supports a much warmer relationship, plus it gives you supply and demand insights. It's a critical component of leveraging all the data the recruiting team creates, and all the heavy lifting it does day to day. Your job should get easier over time, especially if you're working with the same customers.”

- Daniel Pugh, Recruiting & Talent Sourcing Leader @ WestRock

Curious to hear what other industries are facing when it comes to TA in 2023? Stay tuned for the next post in our series!


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