NC Manufacturers Struggle To Find Workers As Demand Surges
North Carolina manufacturers are struggling to find enough workers to keep up with record demand, and industry leaders in the state doubt that the end of federal unemployment benefits this month will be enough to fill the open positions.
The labor shortage has plagued the state's manufacturing industry for years, says Gary Salamido, president and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, but the problem has only worsened during the pandemic.
"Talent was, and now through the pandemic is, the top issue that's facing manufacturers," Salamido said.
"For many years, that's been kind of a worry — the machines taking over the world and all that. But now we need the machines to save the world."
The industry lost roughly 12,000 workers in North Carolina between March 2020 and March 2021 — from 473,300 workers down to 461,300 — according to the state's Department of Commerce. While hiring has begun to rebound, the industry is still down about 5,000 workers compared to pre-pandemic.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in May 2020, the average North Carolina assembly line worker made about $15 an hour, but not all manufacturers can afford to pay that, said Phil Mintz with the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He said smaller companies especially have been losing workers to service jobs that may pay more.
Mintz said some manufacturers are now investing more in automation.
"For many years, that's been kind of a worry — the machines taking over the world and all that," Mintz said, "but now we need the machines to save the world."
Both Mintz and Salamido said the ending of the federal unemployment benefits may push some workers back to the factories, but they expect the worker shortage to continue for at least as long as the pandemic is disrupting people's lives.