The number of vacant manufacturing jobs in the U.S. continued to increase in 2016 and is now at its highest level in 15 years.
The Wall Street Journal, which cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, reported that an average of 353,000 positions were vacant per month this year compared to 311,000 last year and just 122,000 as the country emerged from the recession in 2009.
Although economic growth since the recession helped create more job openings, the paper largely attributed the pattern to the increased sophistication of manufacturing equipment in recent decades.
Although new equipment can allow companies to make more products with fewer workers, they often require the remaining workers to possess advanced skills — contrary to the common perception of the U.S. blue-collar labor force.
The analysis found that the percentage of U.S. manufacturing workers with a bachelor's degree or higher is increasing — at the expense of the share with a high school education or less.
Company executives lamented that the nation's education and worker training systems weren't able to accommodate the rapid technological shifts in manufacturing, and they remained concerned that a growing "skills gap" would impact their businesses in the near future.
Others, however, said that the issues went beyond a "skills gap," which industry leaders have warned about for years.
Some research suggests that the gap between open positions and skilled workers is overblown, and the Journal added that manufacturing workers with appropriate skills are often lured by pharmaceutical or medical device companies that can afford to pay more than conventional manufacturers.
The paper also noted that a similar pattern is taking place in the broader economy. A Georgetown University study said that college-educated U.S. workers outnumbered those with a high school diploma or less for the first time in 2016.