Each year, the Schneider Downs Manufacturing Survey provides new and unique glimpses into the insights of companies from all walks of the sector. Often, however, we can find the most insight from noticing what hasn’t changed over the five years.
As I review this year’s survey results against previous surveys from the past five years, one common refrain jumps out: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Although there has been some shift in key issues over the years, there are several topics for which our respondents report consistent attitudes across all surveys.
Finding Skilled Workers
From our first survey to the most recent, we’ve always asked the question, “What is the toughest challenge you are facing in the current environment?” This year – once again – the lack of skilled workers emerged as one of the top challenges reported by respondents. This issue has received plenty of publicity in the manufacturing sector but only minimal headway has been made in solving it. Workforces were generally at the same level over the survey periods with only a small percentage expecting any type of significant increases. It is apparent that the shortage of skilled workers remains a primary concern for many manufacturers.
Impact on Profit
Once again this year, we asked “Where are you feeling the most pressure on profits?” Not surprisingly, the soaring costs of employee benefits was again a top response. In fact, “benefits” has been either the first or second response in every year that we’ve conducted our survey. Raw material costs and wage increases were also sited with regularity.
A majority of manufacturing executives expect no more than a minimal increase in their capital expenditure budgets. This is the fifth consecutive year we’ve received this as the top response, and it is in-line with the modest growth we have experienced since the Great Recession ended in 2009. After seeing this response for five straight years, I can’t help but wonder if many manufacturers have simply adopted a more permanent conservative approach to establishing their budgets.
One area that has seen steady and consistent change over the years has been the response to questions about international business. Since 2012, we’ve asked manufacturers whether their customer base is local, national or international. While 51.6% of companies reported an international base in 2012, we’ve seen that number escalate to 68.4% in 2015. Perhaps most interesting – at least to me – is that this increase falls across all levels of revenues and sales. This is strong evidence that manufacturers of all sizes continue to think and grow globally.
Finally, a consistent theme throughout the surveys is that manufacturing executives are concerned about government plans impacting the success of their business. To the surprise of no one, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was mentioned often as part of this category. As we enter yet another Presidential election year, manufacturers are closely watching for indicators as to how new legislation may impact their businesses.
So, if so many answers are consistent year after year, what are we to learn from studying the analysis? Perhaps our most valuable lesson is this: The manufacturing sector is a steady engine that continues to surge along, consistently, while being influenced by timeless factors such as workforce, government legislation and an ever-changing customer base. How each individual manufacturer addresses those challenges may well speak to their success in the coming years.
Indeed, the more things change….