The haphazard way we’ve managed the pandemic continues to add new wrinkles to manufacturing’s workforce challenge. The latest is the trend of parents leaving work for good to stay home with kids as schools remain shuttered. A month ago, it was only a possibility. Today, it’s a reality. Companies are losing key employees.

Whether schools would reopen wasn’t supposed to be a variable in the fall of 2020. But there’s good news ahead: Kids will go back to school. And communities will turn to science to keep the public safe. They’ll have to. “If we don’t test, we won’t have more cases,” is a ruinous path.

In fact the science seems straightforward: Test more and faster, and innovate to make places safer. Until there’s a vaccine, and even after, how we interact with each other will change.

Manufacturing’s role will be threefold: 1) Make and assemble the solutions that will help us manage social interactions in our places — tools that measure and monitor biometrics, distance, density, etc.; 2) Deploy those tools in our factories, as stores, bars, restaurants, and schools do the same; 3) Lead a workforce wellness movement that highlights the healthiest and safest locations in our community. Our maker spaces and places should lead the way. It’s a natural corollary to manufacturers’ role as essential businesses.

The outcomes for business will mean everything. Companies able to create safe spaces will do more than just keep employees healthy and happy, they’ll be at the center of a new focus on wellness that distinguishes communities and its best companies. The ubiquitous “best companies to work for” contests will take on new meaning as the stakes become higher.

The flip side is that companies that don’t take steps to ensure employee health will lose out in the long run. Innovation in workforce wellness will become as important as investments in the latest production equipment and technology. To put it another way, IoT and Industry 4.0 is today changed forever, to include the monitoring and management of human capital.

Successful companies will win the competition for employees as they change our public places. Manufacturers can lead, or lag. There’s no doubt the sector will lead. American manufacturing has a long and distinguished record of transforming a crisis to a new more productive society.

A guns-to-butter moment has again arrived.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at