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Declining health in men could be hurting the manufacturing industry

Manufacturing jobs are finding it hard to fill open roles, and one researcher says a decline in health among men aged 25 to 54 is to blame.
Posted at 7:11 PM, Feb 10, 2023

From machine operators to welders and engineers, male employees have typically packed manufacturing jobs.

"At Marlin on the factory floor, it's almost 100%," said Drew Greenblatt, CEO of Marlin Steel Wire Products.

But the future of the traditional manufacturing workforce is somewhat fragile, as less men are working.

"It's a huge concern that we cannot hire the amount of talent that we need to hire to grow," Greenblatt said.

Greenblatt has been running Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore since 1998. Coupled with post-pandemic hiring challenges, he says filling jobs these days is an obstacle unlike any other he's had to deal with.

"It's completely different," he said. "Twenty years ago, we could put a posting out and have the job filled in a day or three."

Now, Greenblatt relies on the help of temp agencies — at a cost. And, he adds, the financial strain doesn't end there.

"We could accept more work and grow faster and make the company healthier if we had more talent," Greenblatt said.

Over the past 50 years, the labor force participation rate — a measure of how many people are working or are actively seeking employment — has fallen among men aged 25 to 54 years old.

Federal Reserve Economic Data

Automation, government benefits and even video games are commonly blamed as culprits.

But there's one economist who doesn't find any of those theories very compelling.

"Men who are struggling with health, either mental or physical, are much more likely to be out of the labor market, regardless of their other characteristics," said Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at Gallup.

Rothwell says a decline in health among men in their prime working years offers the best explanation. He points to CDC data showing men aged 25 to 54 are increasingly health impaired, both physically and mentally. 

It's not yet clear what's causing this trend, but Rothwell has an idea. 

"Men who are in this prime age category who say they have experienced what the literature calls ACEs — adverse childhood experiences — are just much less likely to be working," Rothwell said.

He believes the male participation rate will keep falling due to ACEs — everything from childhood abuse to neglect — which can have long-term consequences, including on a person's capability to work.

"The forces dragging it down that come through family relationships and growing up and in households that are experiencing difficult circumstances, I think, unfortunately, that's going to continue over the next decade," Rothwell said.

A lack of clear cause makes finding a workforce solution difficult.

There's also no consensus on what the ideal participation rate is for men or women. But assuming it continues to decline, certain industries, like manufacturing, will hang in the balance.

The US is facing a critical shortage of high tech engineers

The US is facing a critical shortage of high tech engineers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2016 and 2026 there has been and will be a shortfall of six million engineers, or more.