“When some of these big manufacturing companies first came to town, people were battling to work at these companies…now, those people are battling to get out.”

I looked at the faces of retail workers gathered around the table at our focus group. I had just asked the group if they would consider working in the light industrial and manufacturing industry. The answer was a unanimous “No.” Now, they were explaining why they felt so strongly, and their explanations made one thing clear: Manufacturing and light industrial jobs weren’t working for them. That’s a problem for the light industrial and manufacturing world. It’s also an incredible opportunity.

We’ve been living through a period of rapid change, and that change has put a huge strain on both companies and workers. And that’s where Ōnin comes in. As a staffing partner, we are experts at studying what the workforce wants, preparing for what is coming, and guiding our clients through ever-evolving workforce challenges. Ōnin’s marketing department, specifically, has been on a mission to uncover the needs, desires and characteristics of the modern, low-wage worker through a mix of data analysis, research and uncomfortable conversations with American workers who aren’t afraid to speak their minds. What we’ve learned has, in turn, been surprising, disappointing and exciting. We’re excited to share just a few of those insights with you.

Understanding America’s Low-Wage Workers

Most manufacturing and light industrial employers employ low-wage workers. In the U.S., there are 53 million low-wage workers representing 44% of all workers ages 18-64. These individuals make money within the range of $17,160 to $43,680.

Most low-wage workers have a lower level of education, with just 14% holding a bachelor’s degree and half having attained only a high school diploma, GED or less. Low-wage workers are also more likely to receive safety-net assistance, with 26% of this population seeking assistance compared to just 8% of mid-and high-wage workers.

Nearly half of all low-wage workers are working in just 10 occupation groups. The most popular occupation, by far, for this group is represented by retail workers, who make up 8.4% of the low-wage worker demographic.

We all know there aren’t enough manufacturing and light industrial workers right now, so we have to attract new types of workers from other industries. Retail workers are an easier demographic to attract to manufacturing and a natural fit for the manufacturing and light industrial world. They are a fellow demographic of low-wage workers whose jobs often require physical mobility and the ability to work within a large company system. But as our focus group revealed, changes need to be made before most retail workers — and other workers in the low-wage demographic — can be wooed to manufacturing and light industrial positions.

Today’s retail workers tell a vivid story: They work full time but still need a side hustle job just to make ends meet. This job situation is better than a manufacturing job whose pay is sometimes lower and whose hours are typically longer, which kills the possibility of a side hustle but not the financial necessity of having one. Customers are increasingly rude to retail workers in the stores, but managers in light industrial/manufacturing jobs can also be rude — and sometimes even ruder if you are a“temp” employee for a staffing company. And even if you wanted a manufacturing job, most companies do not seem willing to train entry-level workers or provide an upwardly mobile career ladder, so what was the point of trying to enter an industry that doesn’t want you? It’s a grim picture, but one that also rings true given the recent record levels of workforce issues in the manufacturing industry. These workforce woes contribute to manufacturing and light industrial companies struggling just to meet production on the most basic level right now. Thoughts of deeper investments in people, like providing training and a graduated career ladder, have often fallen to the wayside in the chaos. But, it is exactly these kinds of programs that are essential to solving workforce issues for employers and helping employees get their needs met.

What Low-Wage Workers Need

Having studied and spoken with low-wage workers, there are three major ways companies can invest in these employees, attract them from other industries, and retain them. These investments can also make life better for these often under-appreciated workers. It’s no accident that Ōnin has invested a lot of time and countless resources into these kinds of programs so we can help our clients.


As we worked to uncover the needs of the modern workers, we found that modern workers lack access to basic resources that propel everyday life. One of the most striking lacks is affordable health insurance. Although many workers have access to insurance through their employers, very few of these employees can actually afford the deductible to receive care for their medical issues. This often leads to untreated medical conditions that only become more severe as they are left untreated over time. For low-wage workers who often depend on the health of their bodies for employment, the repercussions can be devastating. Providing access to basic resources that help people care for their physical, mental and financial needs are crucial to building successful teams.


Looking back on the history of industrialization, training was considered an essential part of a successful manufacturing company. Today, fewer employers are committing to training employees, which is becoming a problem as experienced baby boomers rapidly retire. The most attractive jobs act as a bridge. These jobs put the worker on a path from one place in their life to their destination — a better job, a more desirable career, a more secure life. Training is an essential part of the bridge, and building a training program that gives a new generation of workers the skills they need to succeed is a must.


Respect is an essential part of teamwork and productivity. Unfortunately, today’s low-wage earners across industries do not feel respected by the companies or leaders they work for, which impacts low retention and high turnover rates. That’s something we have tried to solve with our Nurture the Green retention initiative, which helps workers form a “success mindset,” meaning an ability to see the bigger picture of their job and understand and how committing to their success will help them be successful long-term. At the same time, our program helps employee leaders act as coaches in a way that fulfills and motivates the workers. It’s a win-win for everyone when we develop a healthy team that gives people the emotional and psychological tools they need to thrive.

The Way Forward

Workforce issues aren’t going away anytime soon. If a company is struggling to recruit and retain workers, the time to start doing things differently and start re-imagining the relationship between employees and employers is now. Today, companies must be able to look in the mirror and know whether the opportunity they provide is a good fit or a poor fit for the modern-day employee. Re-evaluating our jobs can be unpleasant, but we have everything to gain through the process. When we improve the quality of our job opportunities, we improve our companies, our communities and individuals. Right now, as a staffing partner, we are here to help companies navigate tough questions and tackle the complex needs of today’s low-wage workers. It won’t be easy — but our joint efforts are guaranteed to make an impact.