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Tony Oran

Quality Insider

How to Attract Millennials to Advanced Manufacturing Jobs

New attitudes start with a new vocabulary

Published: Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 09:44

In an age where popular technology careers are only seen as attractive if they are based in Silicon Valley or offered by the latest and greatest startup companies, the manufacturing industry must make changes to attract bright and talented Millennials. The numbers clearly illustrate this need.

Baby Boomers currently make up a large part of the manufacturing workforce. With many workers expected to retire in the coming decade, there will be nearly 3.5 million jobs to fill, according to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. Millennials have now overtaken Baby Boomers as the most populous generation, making them one of the largest pools of talent for employers. Quantity, however, does not always translate to quality.

Employers are struggling to find qualified workers to fill available openings, and it’s a trend companies are seeing regardless of sector. CEB released research noting that for every job opening, an average of 30 people applies. Although some might assume that high numbers of applicants mean a lot of job-ready candidates, it doesn’t pan out that way in today’s job market. The same report revealed that less than 20 percent of applicants were qualified for the open position. This is particularly challenging in manufacturing, where jobs labeled as “middle skills” positions typically stay vacant for 40 days, double the national average.

For manufacturing, this means working doubly hard to find and recruit qualified Millennials to fill open positions. But doing that successfully means addressing more complex challenges in industry—challenges related to image, innovation, and training.

Manufacturing then and now

Manufacturing was once seen as a career of merit, pride, and hope; a core part of the U.S. economy. Much of that sheen has been lost today. Downsizing from the 1990s, just as the oldest Millennials were reaching puberty, along with changing American values during the dotcom boom, altered a whole generation’s perception of manufacturing. As a result, Millennials and their parents, who were likely the most affected by these changes, no longer see manufacturing as a central part of the U.S. economy. Nor do they see how the manufacturing industry as a whole is quickly evolving due to technology and the fourth industrial revolution.

That ignorance is in part because the manufacturing industry hasn’t been vocal enough about its own relevance. In a culture that overvalues “cool” and undervalues useful, manufacturing is getting overshadowed by the promise of innovative tech start-ups. Although some major players are trying to change the tide (General Electric’s recent commercials highlighting jobs and innovations in the industry are a good example) there is still a lot of work to be done.

This work starts with vocabulary. Terms like “blue collar” and “middle skills” do nothing to inspire ambition, and they hide the dynamic environments and innovation of today’s manufacturing industry. Along with changing how these jobs are talked about, manufacturing can change the associated images. Showing contemporary photos and videos of the clean, almost sterile, environments of many factory floors and the high-tech equipment involved in today’s production lines can bring to life the changes happening in the industry and align it more to what Millennials value.

Millennials tend to seek career paths that are mission-driven, and they look to industries and start-ups that are seen as innovative. For manufacturers in North America, it’s a challenge to convey the high-tech innovation that’s happening and available to Millennials through modern-day manufacturing when the space of innovation is largely occupied by companies such as Facebook and Google. But there is no reason why that has to remain the case.

Looking to countries such as Germany or Japan, and their more aggressive adoption of Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing, can serve as a good guide. For example, Germany is known for taking single inventions in productivity and efficiency and quickly spreading them throughout manufacturing at scale. This is in part thanks to the country’s Fraunhofer Institutes, which are a set of facilities that take on applied research that drive economic development. Through state and private contract funding, there is a focused effort in innovating that helps promote growth in manufacturing.

We are, however, seeing movement on this front, which is in part due to Fraunhofer locations operating here in the United States and similar U.S. educational institutions following suit to accelerate innovation in manufacturing. President Barack Obama also allocated more than $500 million to invest in new technologies to create high-quality manufacturing jobs and make the United States a global player in manufacturing again. Building on efforts like these can boost manufacturing as well as help re-establish it as an attractive career path for Millennials.

To recruit Millennials and keep them once they are hired, manufacturers need training programs that develop the new kinds of skills workers need to be successful in advanced manufacturing environments. Half of employers surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers admitted they lack a strong digital culture and sufficient training to prepare workers well. The solution in this case may seem easy. Manufacturers need more resources and new equipment to formalize training programs for the workforce they have, and the workforce they need. But finding the time and money to enact such programs is difficult.

At the same time, manufacturers also need colleges, universities, and technical training programs to change how students are educated. Some educators and trainers are starting to solve this with lab simulations and making curricula more interactive and inventive, but changes are only beginning to take place. There is great opportunity for employers to get engaged in collaborative partnerships with schools to ensure that the skills being taught in the classroom are the ones needed on the job. This kind of partnership can also help instructors become familiar with new equipment and the new expectations of students, as they are often individuals who worked on plant floors long before the technological innovations of advanced manufacturing were in place. The efforts don’t have to be limited to higher education—investing in STEM education for younger students can help seed a strong future of manufacturing workers as well.

There may be many more opportunities beyond these but if manufacturing can overcome even one or two of these challenges, the industry will be in a much better position to attract the best and brightest Millennials and show the world that North American manufacturing is not dead, but evolving and growing.


About The Author

Tony Oran’s picture

Tony Oran

Tony Oran is the director of training and higher education for Festo Didactic, a global supplier of factory and process automation technology and provider of equipment and solutions for industrial education. Oran has more than 20 years of sales and business management experience in global automation and industrial education.


Attracting Millennials to advanced mfg. jobs.

May workers in the Mfg. field have not see pay increases for 10 or more years. This is a majar factor when deciding which field  millennials.