The ability to attract and retain a quality workforce is a top business concern for manufacturers in the US, a new survey has found, with optimism amid uncertainty continuing to wane.

According to the results of the National Association of Manufacturers' Outlook Survey, for the third quarter of 2019 there has been a "significant" drop in optimism on the prior quarter, amid a softening global economy and worsening workforce shortage.

Nearly 68% of manufacturers had a positive outlook for their business in the third quarter, down from 79.8% in the second quarter and 89.5% in the first quarter. The inability to attract and retain a quality workforce remained manufacturers' top business concern (69.9%) for the seventh straight quarter.

"Manufacturers across the country are telling us nothing concerns them more than the workforce crisis. And that's exactly why the NAM took the historic step earlier this year of launching the Creators Wanted Fund, a multimillion-dollar campaign to close the skills gap and inspire a new generation of modern manufacturing workers," said NAM president and CEO Jay Timmons.

"This quarter's survey also provides more evidence that a slowing global economy and uncertainties have manufacturers on edge. If we get the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement passed, the trade war with China turned into a trade agreement and the Export-Import Bank reauthorised, manufacturers will be able to hire even more workers and grow our operations with more certainty."

Manufacturers have an all-time high of 522,000 open jobs, according to the most recent JOLTS data, and a landmark report published last year by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute—the workforce and education partner of the NAM—found that 2.4m manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2028.

The survey found that trade uncertainties among manufacturers rose to 63.4% in the third quarter, up from 56% in the second quarter, as Congress and the administration work to approve the USMCA, secure a US–China trade agreement and reauthorise the Ex-Im Bank.

The USMCA was agreed with Canada and Mexico on 30 September 2018; and was officially signed by the presidents of the three countries on 30 November 2018. But while the Trump Administration is working to ratify the USMCA in 2019, upcoming election cycles mean it is not certain whether USMCA will be ratified and enter into force this year. 

The Manufacturers' Outlook Survey has surveyed the association's membership of 14,000 large and small manufacturers on a quarterly basis since 1997 to gain insight into their economic outlook, hiring and investment decisions and business concerns.