Man Moving Die Cut Automotive Engine

Blame it on NAFTA or lax trade enforcement, but the Made in the USA journey has domestic roadblocks, too. Here’s one: the skilled workers who make the molds and tools used in automotive parts manufacturing and assembly are on the fast track to extinction.

Nearly 75% of tool and die makers are over age 45, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 2% are younger than 35. Two out of five are either already eligible to retire, or will be in the next 5 to 7 years.

“When talent is in short supply in tooling, it’s in short supply in manufacturing,” Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research [CAR], told a group of leaders from the automotive industry who had gathered for two-day brainstorming session this week on to how revive the nation’s waning tool and die sector.

The mix of attendees was certainly fertile: Manufacturing directors from most of the major automakers swapped war stories about not being able to get their orders filled with owners of six-person tooling shops who were barely keeping their doors open. Educators and academics talked about the need to meaningfully reach out to veterans, women and ex-offenders to fill the labor void, and find innovative ways to access the latest equipment to train them.

It’s been a slow and painful decline: Baron started trying to get Washington’s ear about troubles in U.S. tool and die making some 20 years ago during U.S. manufacturing’s mass exodus to China. Back then, he was “going from congressional office to congressional office, trying to explain the tooling industry in a half hour” to whomever would listen. Few did, and those who did sent him to the Pentagon because the military actually had some money to throw at the problem.

Read more: Tool and Dying: Auto Leaders, From Ford to FCA, Brainstorm on Saving the Shops that Sustain Them