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Mike Roberts

Quality Insider

Seven Ways of Renewing Interest in the Manufacturing Workforce

Provide kids with hands-on opportunities to explore how things are made early and often

Published: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 12:06

We’ve got a real problem on our hands in America. A gap is growing between manufacturing workers set to retire in the next 10 to 15 years and the workers needed to fill their vacancies. Despite the exciting and innovative things happening in the manufacturing industry, Millennials’ outdated perception of shop-floor jobs is increasingly precluding them from following the manufacturing career path. And Gen-Z, thumb deep in their smart phones, have an even greater disconnect.

The reality is manufacturing continues to evolve with other industries. Many of today’s workers have tech-savvy jobs that require using software to model products with 3D visualization tools, mining big data with analytics, and automating assembly with robotics. From procurement to design, building, delivery, and service, there are considerable opportunities for the workforce—not to mention extensive room for growth—at some of the world’s largest companies.

Something has to be done to pique people’s interest, and it’s going to take more than Jason Statham doing a movie about how his character’s contract manufacturing company is getting strong-armed by the mob into 3D printing guns. Resurging interest in manufacturing as a career will require a systemic effort, both publicly and privately. It’s going to have to be approached from the ground up, and we’ve come up with a list of seven things that will help attract the younger workforce to manufacturing.

1. Manufacturing summer camps

Most parents look for ways to keep their kids busy during summers. In recent years there’s been a rise in the number of manufacturing- and engineering-oriented summer camps that aim to inspire and equip youth with tangible and exciting real-world experiences.

A well-known example of this is Nuts, Bolts, and Thingamajigs (NBT) The Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International. With week-long camps held throughout the country, NBT provides kids in middle school and high school the opportunity to ideate, design, and build products. They get to learn about and use technology such as computer aided design (CAD) software, as well as different types of manufacturing machinery such as CNC machines and lathes (under professional supervision, of course). 

2. 3D printing at home and in school

Although 3D printing has been around for a while, recent advancements have changed the game. Improvements in price, materials, and the technology itself are moving 3D printing beyond the shop floor, and into homes and schools.

3. Gamification in manufacturing

Anytime you “gamify” something, it’s going to be more interesting and relatable to today’s youth. Teenagers grew up with games that were complex and required understanding new technology. In the past few years, there have been several pushes toward the gamification of manufacturing; a notable example was Siemens’ Plantville.

Plantville simulated what it’s like to be a plant manager with goals of improving productivity, quality, safety, on-time deliveries, and energy management. Users ratings were based on key performance indicators (KPIs). The game’s design was not only for manufacturing professionals, but also for high-school and college students. There have even been a few competitions held in high schools. 

4. Vocational schools and manufacturing-focused high-school classes

Students have been taking technology-oriented classes for years, but there’s certainly something to be said for specific skills training offered within high schools. Vocational schools and manufacturing-focused classes give students a taste of what the careers entail and prepare them for entry-level positions. 

In some programs in New York, Massachusetts, and California, students can take college courses while in high school—sometimes taking five years to graduate rather than four—and leave with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.

Maybe we should also take a page out of the German manufacturing handbook, where the country is putting a lot of effort into apprenticeships, awareness, and improving the respect of both students and the broader public for those in manufacturing careers.

5. National Manufacturing Day

Last year, the United States celebrated the second annual National Manufacturing Day. More than 800 plant tours, career workshops, and open houses were held by trade associations, universities, and manufacturing organizations to show younger generations that manufacturing offers viable career options that can be fun and exciting. The next event is slated for early October 2014.

The resurgence of manufacturing in America has prompted a variety of U.S. manufacturers to be more involved with local communities, offering plant tours to middle-school and high-school students. Manufacturers are also visiting schools to get the point across that the shop floor is no longer a dangerous, dirty, and dark place. You can expect this trend to continue as more public and private focus is put on the widening skills gap. 

6. Makerspaces

Makerspaces are popping up throughout the country. They’re generally shared spaces where community members can gain access to manufacturing resources, such as tools, materials, educational opportunities, peers, and more. The idea is to provide a safe environment for small manufacturing organizations, hobbyists, and students to design, prototype, and create things on their own. 

7. Parents

This one’s a no-brainer, but it’s important to mention. Parents can, of course, influence their children’s interests by providing the opportunity to actually make things (using Legos, electronics kits, etc.) rather than just playing with them. Toys don’t always have to be action figures or video games, and summer camps don’t always have to be for recreation. There are plenty of options for all age groups—it’s just a matter of taking action. 

When it comes down to it, the best way to get today’s youth interested in manufacturing is by exposing them to it as early and often as possible. The longer we wait to let them know about the interesting stuff happening in manufacturing and engineering, the less likely they are to actually have an interest in hands-on, mechanical activities.

There will always be kids who go out of their way to take things apart and to understand how they work. The other kids just need to be presented with the opportunity to explore how things are made—hands on.


About The Author

Mike Roberts’s picture

Mike Roberts

Mike Roberts is a research associate with LNS Research based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. LNS Research provides executives a platform for accessing unbiased research and benchmark data to improve business performance. Roberts writes research papers, case studies, and contributes regularly to the LNS Research blog, where he covers topics including enterprise quality management software, manufacturing operations management, asset performance management, sustainability, and industrial automation 2.0.